Speech, Chilled

Johns Hopkins student Justin Park posted on Facebook an invitation to attend his fraternity’s “Halloween in the Hood” party. After the school’s director of Greek Affairs notified Park that he found the invitation to be offensive Park removed it, replacing it with another that eliminated (in Park’s estimation) the troublesome language. The second invitation played up the school’s concerns over the first, made fun of O.J. Simpson and Johnnie Cochran, and referred to Baltimore as an “HIV” pit. Members of the Hopkins’ Black Student Union attended the party and found its themes offensive. Soon thereafter the associate dean of students notified Park that he was charged with “failing to respect the rights of others,” 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 group,” and “intimidation.” Following a hearing Johns Hopkins suspended Park for year, required him to complete 300 hours of community service, attend a university workshop, and read twelve books and write a paper on each. Johns Hopkins also adopted a new, stricter speech code than the one Park violated, one that announces ““[r]ude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” (Source: Grug Lukianoff and Will Creeley, Facing Off Over Facebook, The Phoenix, 27-Feb-2007) [Lukianoff and Creeley are the president and senior program officer, respectively, of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education]

Johns Hopkins is a private institution. The First Amendment does not apply to its speech-limiting actions. It is free to establish and enforce a code of acceptable speech according to its internal disciplinary policies. This is not a First Amendment case, but it is a free speech case.

University speech codes are an abomination. In theory a speech code can help shield a school from liability for discrimination claims brought under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. But, just as employers generally adopt and enforce zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies that are more restrictive than the current state of sexual harassment law, university speech codes often limit speech that would not be actionable under Title IX. Such over-reaching codes are almost impossible to enforce as written, and are honored only in the breach. The result is uneven enforcement and furthering of a climate of crabbed, truncated, too-cautious speech. If there is any place where diversity of opinion, thought, and speech should be nurtured, it is in a university. Who to blame? The Phoenix article notes “the campus free-speech movement of the 1960s and ’70s was highly successful. The sad irony is that many from the generation that fought so hard for free speech in the ’60s and ’70s were the pioneers of speech codes and PC restrictions in the ’80s and ’90s and that we still see today.”

You’re welcome, kids.

15 Replies to “Speech, Chilled”

  1. Aliza

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  2. student330

    I agree with JEL59 and mfrey12. Facebook is an open social site, but it is also public because anyone can see what is posted online. People need to be cautious before posting anything online because everyone is privy to it. This is the same reason why students are warned not post offensive information in their profiles because employers can see it through alumni on facebook.
    Although Johns Hopkins’ punishment was quite harsh, it had the right to do so because it is a private institution. I also agree with Jeetu that Johns Hopkins is a respectable institution that may have had to act that way to preserve its reputation.
    Justin Park did not have to use Facebook to post his party invitations. He could have called his friends or talked to them using some other mode of communication. This is where Justin “incriminated” himself; if he had thought twice about posting the invitation again after he was warned and had thought to tone down the offensive theme of his party, since the university already knew about it, Justin could have saved himself from a great deal of trouble.

  3. mfrey12

    I agree with JEL59’s points. Facebook is not synonymous with “posting anything you’d like without consequences.” It’s a public area and even universities have the ability to look through it. John Hopkins University has a reputation to uphold and since the fraternity was affiliated with the college, it was correct for the university to punish Park. It seemed like Park did not take the notification from the school’s director of Greek Affairs too seriously, since he put up another invitation soon after. Because of his actions, he suffered the consequences. Though the punishment is severe in my opinion, it does set the example that if one does not “comply with the directions of a university administrator” and/or uses “conduct that harasses a person or group,” (which in this case I believe Park used) he or she will be punished accordingly. It is chilling that this all revolves around Facebook, since some would like to think nothing can happen to us from a social website. However, examples like this illustrate that we are not free to do what we please, even on websites. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue completely. On one hand, I understand that punishments are necessary for violations of rules, codes of conducts, or laws. On the other, it makes me nervous to see where people will draw the line on what is punishable and what is not. Will all colleges adopt policies to search through pictures and evidence of drinking in the dorms? Will all companies do Facebook searches of prospective employees to spot poor behavior? Some can and some do and some will, but is this going to be the norm?

  4. apatidar

    I guess I see jeetu’s point now about how Facebook was only the means of the college finding out and about how he would’ve still gotten in trouble if they found out another way. And I do agree that the party and its’ theme was inappropriate and Park did, in some ways, violate the anti-harrassment policy but regardless, I still feel like the University shouldn’t have punished Park solely with evidence found on Facebook. It’s fine that they heard about the party through Facebook but if they intended on acting on their findings, then they should have produced something more concrete than a Facebook flyer. A physical paper flyer or anything of that kind would have been sufficient. I still believe that the University crossed the line when they punished Park for comments made on Facebook.

  5. JEL59

    Building on what ckim said, Facebook is a public area, and things posted on Facebook are public items. Many businesses look to Facebook accounts of job applicants, to see if the profiles fit what they are looking for in future employees, and I’m sure many companies wouldn’t like their employees publicly talking about their “Halloween in the Hood” party. It also reflects poorly on Johns Hopkins for allowing a representative of the school (this fraternity) to host these kind of parties. In addition, I have also heard of some colleges that look at students’ Facebook profiles for other violation, for example underage possession of alcohol in a dorm. At some schools, underage students that are ignorant enough to post pictures of themselves in their dorm rooms drinking, have been found in violation of the university’s alcohol policy.

  6. ckim

    Adding on to what apatidar mentioned, I feel like facebook is a privilege. Analogous to a driver’s license, if the rights are violated and directions not followed, than I feel as if there should be some sort of legal ramification(s) to castigate the “misusers.” I believe, nowadays when applying to jobs after graduating, businesses have the right to look into your facebook account for whatever the reasons might be. Facebook is not an empty sheet of paper where you let your imaginations disseminate freely.

  7. jeetu

    I understand what you’re saying but I think your missing the point. The majority of his punishment stemmed from the fact that Park went through with his plans and had this party, not just because he posted an invitation on facebook. If the University found out about this party in another way, I think he still would have received the same sentence. He “failed to respect the rights of others” and conducted a pattern that harassed a group or a person.” I would definitely feel like my rights weren’t being respected if someone referred to my neighborhood as a HIV pit. Furthermore, the article said that this party was a celebration of negative racial stereotypes. “Black Student Union members took particular offense to a skeleton pirate dangling from a noose, which they perceived as an obvious symbol of lynching.” I feel the theme of this party did go overboard. He also did fail to comply with the directions of a university administrator. It’s like asking for a water cup at McDonald’s and filling it up with Coke. Then when an employee says “you can’t get coke, you pour out the coke and fill up your water cup with sprite. I’m not sure how he violated the “intimidation” part though because black people read the invitation and still came to the party.

  8. apatidar

    I disagree. Facebook is an entirely social website designed for students of a certain educational level to meet and interact. It is in no way college or university affiliated. When student’s register for Facebook, they aren’t required to sign a non-disclosure agreement or some university required contract limiting what the student can/cannot say. Just because a student goes to a certain college/university, doesn’t mean that they should have to look over their back and be afraid of the reprecussions that every little comment they make might have. I mean where does it stop? Facebook of all places to punish students?! So does this mean that one day it might be okay for college officials to go searching through students’ personal websites, journals, or blogs…etc?

    p.s. It’s a sad day when college officials have nothing BETTER to do than surf through Facebook checking out students’ profiles. I mean you have to wonder…is it for business or pleasure? Maybe a mix of both? Haha

  9. jeetu

    If this kid was so smart (starting college at 15), he should have known not to post the party on facebook. Park could have easily told his friends in real life or called/text messaged them. I am not surprised of the harsh penalty that John Hopkins put forth. A school like that wants to be respected. Yes, there is no way there going to catch every person having a ill-themed party. How do they stop people from having parties with such negative themes? The only way is to do exactly what they did. When they do find a culprit, they should punish him badly. This way other students will think twice before having a party that has the potential to make people feel discriminated against.

  10. ckim

    I completely agree with levym. This case is emblematic to the Knievel vs. ESPN case. Both Justin Park’s fraternity and ESPN were the “issuers” and hosts of the events/photos. Park’s fraternity supposedly used offensive and concomitantly, attractive language to attract members to attend his party. ESPN displayed Knievel’s image calling him a “pimp.” ESPN’s and Justin’s connotations can be viewed as acutely offensive on a superficial level, but they’re actual intentions on the larger scale, were no more than to attract, appeal and entertain. The university’s and Knievel’s misconstruing conflict with ESPN’s and Justin’s concept of simply, appealing to others. Facebook is a highly, questionable topic.

  11. JEL59

    While I agree that if people are offended by the themes of a party, they can choose not to go, these themed parties were held by a fraternity of the university and the offensive theme was publicly advertised. This group is representative of the university, and it could be interpreted that the Johns Hopkins finds these themes acceptable. Therefore it is logical for them to prevent these kind of offensive themed parties, and punish those that host them, especially after being warned.

  12. bsanthan

    I live off campus and have some parties here and there with some themes, something like golf pros and tennis hoes…or ceo’s and office hoes. It doesn’t mean my roomates and I think that girls are hoes, its just in the name of the party and just for fun. If people are offended by the themes, they can choose not to go. I guess I just can’t put a flyer up on facebook…

  13. levym

    I agree with jtran3. However, this case reminds me of the Knievel v. ESPN case we discussed a few weeks ago. I kind of see Park’s comments in the same way that we saw ESPN’s (i.e. playful and humorous, not offensive). I guess the main difference is that Park was warned and didn’t stop. But then again, there’s a lot of offensive stuff on Facebook. If university officials got on Facebook and investigated all the group listings and event invitations, I don’t think they’d be thrilled with the content. Is this case going to start a witch-hunt where students will be convicted for things they put on Facebook?

  14. jtran3

    Today, people need to be cautious about what they say and do, especially when race is involved. I believe Park received a harsh yet fair punishment for his actions. He received a warning about the invitation’s content, and still he decided to stick with his offensive themes. The issue lies with Park unaware of the limitations of the First Admendment or his offensive acts, and the development of rather offensive themes by pop culture. Park started college at the age of 15, so he may not be matured enough to understand the consequences of his actions. The material on TV (MTV, VH1, BET) make certain themes of race, gender, or age the norm in society, and people like Park take it in for its fun and glamour.

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