Justin Park’s case may be the harbinger of things to come. In response to the uproar about his Halloween invite, Johns Hopkins, one of the world’s elite universities, acted quickly to enact a shiny new speech code, far more restrictive than the policy already in place. Titled “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All,” the new code states sanctimoniously that “[r]ude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” While Johns Hopkins, as a private university, is not explicitly bound by the First Amendment, this code is impossible to reconcile with the school’s stated commitments to free speech. Are we really to believe that “[f]undamental to the University’s purpose is the free and open exchange of ideas,” if students may be suspended any time the administration deems a joke or opinion rude? Doesn’t the university understand that there is always something arguably “disrespectful” in any dissenting voice? Hopkins, which clearly wants to establish itself as a progressive and enlightened institution, has decided to pass a code that is as myopic and imperious as any morality regulation of the Victorian era.
In the ongoing search for identity and individual truth, students will engage in conversations others may view as inappropriate, just as they always have. As pleasant as politeness may be, it is of minuscule importance compared with the necessity of robust discussion on our college campuses. As ever, occasional offense is a small price to pay for continuing to honor the wisdom of the Bill of Rights as we navigate through this unparalleled communications revolution.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Will Creeley is an attorney and a senior program officer at FIRE. They can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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