Johns Hopkins University has suspended a student for an entire year for posting Halloween party invitations that some students found offensive on Facebook.com. After the university found 18-year-old junior Justin Park guilty of failing to respect the rights of others, harassment, and intimidation, among other charges, Park sought help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“Jeopardizing a student’s entire academic career because some students were offended by a joke is not just unfair—it’s cruel,” FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said. “Hopkins should teach its students that the way we deal with speech we dislike in a free society is with more speech, not with severe and life-altering punishment.”
The Halloween controversy at Hopkins began on October 26, when Park, the social chair of the Sigma Chi fraternity chapter, posted an advertisement for the fraternity’s “Halloween in the Hood” party on Facebook.com. Director of Greek Affairs Robert Turning asked Park to remove the invitation because some students found it offensive. Park removed the advertisement on October 27. After receiving inquiries into whether the party would still take place, Park posted a different advertisement and Sigma Chi hosted the party on October 28.
On November 6, Associate Dean of Students Dorothy Sheppard sent Park a letter stating that the two Facebook.com advertisements “contained offensive racial stereotyping” and that “there were offensive decorations at the party.” Sheppard’s letter informed Park that he was charged with “failing to respect the rights of others and to refrain from behavior that impairs the university’s purpose or its reputation in the community,” violating the “university’s anti-harassment policy,” “failure to comply with the directions of a university administrator,” “conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or a group,” and “intimidation.”
On November 9, the Student Conduct Board held a hearing to discuss the charges against Park, and on November 20, Park received another letter from Sheppard stating that he had been found “responsible for all charges.” As the letter explains, Park currently faces suspension from the university until January 2008, during which time he cannot even set foot on campus; completion of 300 hours of community service; an assignment to read 12 books and write a reflection paper on each; and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations. Park filed an appeal of the university’s decision on November 27.
On November 28, FIRE wrote a letter to Johns Hopkins President William Brody to emphasize that Hopkins’ severe treatment of Park is inconsistent with its Undergraduate Student Conduct Code requirement that students must “protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas.” FIRE has requested a response to that letter by Tuesday, December 5.
“Hopkins’ unconscionable treatment of Justin Park should shock anyone who values free speech,” Harris said. “Johns Hopkins must not be allowed to promise free speech to its students and then deliver heavy-handed repression. FIRE will keep fighting until Justin Park’s rights are restored and the rights of all Hopkins students are secure.”
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.