Johns Hopkins University President William Brody (410-516-8068; ) recently wrote a column in response to the public outcry over his university’s handling of the now-infamous Hopkins Halloween controversy. His column evidences both a profound ignorance of constitutional principles and a profane indifference towards intellectual honesty.
In his column, Brody notes that “Tempers are hot, and people (both within and outside the university) are upset” over his university’s decision to suspend an Asian student for a year for posting “racially insensitive” party invitations on an off-campus website. Many are also upset that this life-altering punishment includes mandatory racial sensitivity training for someone who is, in fact, a racial minority – that is, if you consider Korean students to be minorities.
What William Brody and other college administrators fail to grasp is that speech codes have made campus life less rather than more civil in recent years. Rather than complaining that we have “civility” problems despite the presence of campus speech codes, perhaps some day they will come to realize that we have these problems because of campus speech codes. The more administrators try to enforce “civility” at the point of a gun, the more these students rebel. That is why much of what seems to be adolescent name-calling is, in fact, core First Amendment political speech.
But William Brody sees things differently. He cites as an example of core First Amendment speech a satirical picture in the Hopkins newspaper, which lumped mass-murderers Richard Speck and Charles Whitman with then-president Lyndon Baines Johnson. The paper also described LBJ as a former Texas ploughboy who murdered innocent Vietnamese citizens both for profit and for pleasure. Two editors of the student paper were suspended by the former Hopkins President as a result of the offense taken at the picture.
In contrast, Brody says that it “stretches our credulity to assert that two crude and tasteless invitations to a fraternity party posted on an Internet Web site rise to this standard of seriousness of purpose or intent. What I see here is not a courageous trespass of taboo speech but rather a fundamental breach of civility of the sort that is so commonly displayed in disparagement, mockery or epithets drawn along racial or ethnic lines. It is, simply put, common name-calling. This is what I believe we should agree is unacceptable in our community of free and open discourse. Let us not forget that true civility is not a program of fair treatment for this or that constituency but rather an underlying and fundamental commitment to showing respect for everybody.”
Note that Brody asserts that the difference between the two forms of speech – the LBJ picture and the Halloween invitations – is that the former contains serious political speech and the latter does not. But there is another crucial difference: Brody gives a detailed description of what people found offensive in the LBJ ad, while offering no detailed description concerning the speech of the Korean student, Justin Park.
There are rumors that a noose was put around the neck of a skeleton and that people were dressed as “pimps” and ‘whores” at the party. But I’ve seen no evidence that Park – the guy getting punished – did any of these things. And, certainly, there is no consensus that this would have justified the life-altering punishment he received.
It is simply disturbing that a college president sees himself as responsible for policing off-campus “breach(es) of civility” including “disparagement, mockery or epithets” that are by his own admission “commonly displayed.” Has he nothing more serious to do with his time than police off campus “discourtesy”?
Brody thinks that “common name-calling” is something that “we should agree is unacceptable in our community of free and open discourse.” But Brody fails to comprehend that the massive protests – in defense of Justin Park, not Brody – at John Hopkins demonstrate that not everyone agrees with him. These students are able to comprehend the fundamental logical flaw inherent in the position that the punishment of off-campus speech can be justified in the name of “free and open discourse.”
Put simply, one cannot guarantee both a “right to feel comfortable” and a right to “free and open discourse.” Most Americans choose – and would choose to die for – the latter. In so doing, they abdicate their right to the former.
Brody also boasts that Johns Hopkins has one of the nation’s foremost experts on civility, Professor Pier Massimo Forni, who is employed in the Department of German and Romantic Languages. He recommends his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct for those following the Hopkins Halloween controversy.
But this case is not about “choosing civility.” It is about destroying the lives of young students who fail to accept your definition of civility. Put simply, you can’t make a woman love you by raping her. Nor can you force students to be tolerant with a speech code. Free will in the absence of coercion makes all the difference between both love and rape and tolerance and tyranny.
And so why do the college administrators remain steadfast in their support of campus speech codes? The courts are rejecting them. The people are rejecting them, too. Why the allegiance?
The reason college administrators support these speech codes is because they are usually vague, overly broad, and easy to enforce selectively. And that is important in an environment (higher education generally) where survival depends on placating the Holy Trinity of Diversity – blacks, gays, and feminists. (Note that I elected to say “Blacks, gays, and feminists” – rather than “Negroes, homos, and lesbos” – without a speech code to help me “choose” civility.)
When William Brody concludes his column by saying that “Moving forward from here, I hope we will all recommit ourselves to this bedrock principle of our community” here is what he is really saying: “I hope you choose my definition of civility. Otherwise, my administration will ruin your academic career and reputation.”
So I think I have found a way to resolve this unpleasant controversy. As a final act in this drama, I propose another Sigma Chi party where my brothers all make fun of pimps and whores. In other words, I suggest they dress up like Hopkins administrators.