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Johns Hopkins University gets two warnings about ‘rude’ speech code – 15 years apart

‘Groundhog Day’ for chilled speech

If you’re a student organization at Johns Hopkins University, you can be sanctioned or lose recognition for any behavior an administrator considers “rude” or “disrespectful.” Seriously.

Sounds like an open invitation for campus officials to discriminate against student groups whose views are perennially unpopular, or perhaps just criticized those officials.

Does this policy language, listed under the heading “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All,” sound like it’s remotely consistent with the private university’s contractual promise to protect views that “even the vast majority of the community may find misguided, ignorant, or offensive”?

Regular College Fix readers would guess that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has already warned Johns Hopkins about this speech-chilling policy. Indeed, the civil liberties group has done this.

Twice – 15 years apart.

FIRE shamed the university about this policy in 2006, and it’s still on the books in 2021, prompting a second “Speech Code of the Month” award on Tuesday.

While about half of schools unflatteringly featured by FIRE revise the problematic speech code, Johns Hopkins “seem[s] to be stuck in a time loop” like Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day,” FIRE’s Laura Beltz writes.

MORE: CU-Denver shamed by FIRE into removing offensive-email policy

“Subjectively rude or disrespectful behavior could include just about any expression an administrator doesn’t like,” she says, quoting the 2006 warning when the policy was “brand new”:

This policy virtually necessitates abuse, since it is so broad that it could never be enforced across the board, instead leaving students at the whim of the administration. No university could possibly have the resources to prosecute every instance of rudeness that takes place anywhere on its campus.

Want to know how different the world was in 2006? FIRE notes in that long-ago post that the university had recently suspended a student for posting “Halloween in the Hood” party invitations on Facebook, shortly after the young social media network opened its digital doors to non-students.

It’s pretty amazing that a university as high-profile as John Hopkins hasn’t changed this policy at all in 15 years. It’s a small change to make – if enough people complain to the university.

Plus, FIRE offers model language from the University of Southern Mississippi’s residence life handbook that Johns Hopkins can adapt, regardless of its private status. Southern Miss emphasizes its “common principles” are voluntary and “not intended to interfere in any way with a resident’s personal freedoms.”

It should be far easier for Johns Hopkins to make its policies internally consistent than it was for Bill Murray’s character to finally move on to the next day, which the movie’s director estimated took 30 to 40 years.

MOREFordham bans emails that ‘insult’ or ’embarrass’ people

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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