After weeks of public pressure, Johns Hopkins University has reduced its draconian punishment of student Justin Park, who posted an “offensive” Halloween party invitation on Facebook.com. The university has concluded Park’s appeal, and he is satisfied with the outcome. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is nonetheless troubled that any punishment remains. Moreover, FIRE believes that the university’s conduct throughout this case—and throughout 2006 in general—leaves serious doubts about whether students at Hopkins have even the most minimal rights to free speech and due process.
“We are obviously pleased that Justin Park is satisfied with the outcome of his appeal,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “But that is cold comfort to the rest of the Johns Hopkins student body, which continues to live under Hopkins’ absurd new speech code and under the threat of censorship and punishment at the whim of the administration.”
The Halloween controversy at Hopkins began when Park, then the social chair of the Sigma Chi fraternity chapter, posted an advertisement for the fraternity’s “Halloween in the Hood” party on Facebook.com that some found racially offensive. As a result, Park was charged with and found guilty of numerous violations of university policy. His original punishment included suspension from the university until January 2008; completion of 300 hours of community service; an assignment to read 12 books and to write a reflection paper on each; and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations. In the midst of the controversy, Johns Hopkins President William Brody also introduced a new policy prohibiting “rude, disrespectful behavior” at the university, and published an article in the December 11, 2006, issue of The JHU Gazette in which he explicitly stated that speech that is “tasteless” or that breaches “civility” will not be tolerated at Hopkins.
FIRE wrote a letter to President Brody on November 28 to protest the university’s treatment of Justin Park as well as the introduction of the new policy restricting students’ freedom of speech. In response, FIRE received a perfunctory letter from Stephen Dunham, Hopkins’ General Counsel, denying that the university’s conduct or policies “violate[d] anyone’s free speech.”
Last week, Park informed FIRE that his appeal had concluded and that he was satisfied with the results. He requested that the specific details of the outcome remain private.
The Park case is the latest in a series of actions that belie Hopkins’ professed commitment to free speech. In May 2006, the student publication The Carrolton Record (TCR) published an issue criticizing a campus event featuring a pornographic film producer. The cover featured a photo of the producer surrounded by photos of members of the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, the student group that sponsored the event. Hopkins investigated TCR staffers for harassment, prohibited them from distributing in the dorms, and turned a blind eye to the theft of nearly 600 copies of the paper. Although Hopkins eventually dropped the harassment investigation under pressure from FIRE, it still maintains restrictive newspaper distribution policies and has not condemned the newspaper theft.
“Over the past year, Johns Hopkins has shown a complete disregard for basic rights,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “The university’s treatment of Justin Park and of the TCR staffers was simply unconscionable. In the coming year, FIRE will be watching Hopkins closely to see if it lives up to its promises of free speech and open inquiry. We urge concerned Hopkins alumni and supporters to contact the university and warn them about the dangers of a stifled academic community, and we urge victims of censorship at Hopkins to contact FIRE.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Johns Hopkins University can be viewed at thefire.org/jhu.