"I'm Offended" · 15 December 2006

By Richard L. Cravatts


In a recent controversy simmering on the Johns Hopkins University campus, university administrators seem to be giving credence to an observation by Abigail Thernstrom, who categorized left-leaning, politically correct institutions of higher education as "an island of repression in a sea of freedom." Instead of actually functioning as marketplaces of ideas—“to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas,” as described in Johns Hopkins’ own student handbook—universities continue to punish what they categorize as “offensive” speech and behavior that do not conform to the acceptable, liberal views of politics, race, or sexuality.


When posting invitations on Facebook.com, an online social networking site, for a "Halloween in the Hood" party to be hosted by his Sigma Chi fraternity, junior Justin Park included some racist comments, crude stereotyping, and such vivid descriptions as likening Baltimore to a "motherf---ing ghetto" and "hiv [sic] pit." At the party itself, decorations included a plastic doll bedecked as pirate with a noose around its neck, leading some to conclude, given the party’s theme, that it evoked the image of a racial lynching.


The invitation and party immediately drew condemnation from the Black Student Union (BSU), members of the School’s administration, Baltimore’s chapter of the NAACP, and local media, with the not-surprising accusation that the party was not only “offensive,” but pointed to “institutionalized racism” at Johns Hopkins. BSU member Sheyna Mikeal spoke for many of the aggrieved critics of the affair when she remarked, “I don't know if it was racism, but it was offensive.”

 Apparently, Johns Hopkins administrators found offense as well: on November 20th Park was suspended from the University for one year and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service, read and write thoughtful reviews of twelve books, and participate in mandatory workshops on diversity and race relations. Among his offenses?: violating the “university’s anti-harassment policy,” “conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or a group,” and “intimidation.” 

There are troubling issues here, putting aside the basic question of fairness of punishing a student with a Draconian, life-altering college suspension because he exhibited loutish behavior. He received his punishment, not because he participated in actual illegal harassing or intimidating behavior—such as burning a cross on the lawn of a black fraternity, making racist death threats, or following someone of color across campus while taunting them repeatedly with racial epithets, behavior that might more easily be defined as unprotected expression—but because some individuals were ‘offended’ by speech that was not even made directly to them. Students have a right to be offended by the speech—even hate speech—of their fellow students, but they also have a Constitutionally-protected right to be offensive, provided their conduct is within the bounds of the law. And why is it the business of universities to mandate sensitivity training for students that they have defined, through their own moral view of the world, as hateful, and to force them to write book reports on ‘instructional’ texts that will undoubtedly begin with the premise that the United States is a racist, sexist, imperialistic, and repressive country? When did universities stop teaching students how to think and instead begin indoctrinating them on what to think?

 When political correctness first began to engulf our campuses, of course, racist or “hateful” speech was attacked as just that: speech which was unacceptable to those “victim” groups who were perceived as needing protection from freely-spoken opinions—generally members of racial, ethnic or sexual minorities. As a result, speech codes were frequently called for to insulate such individuals from speech that was deemed hate speech—speech that was, however, consistently recognized by the courts to be protected speech. Universities have therefore had to take a new approach in their attempts to suppress speech whose content they do not approve of: as they did in the current case with Mr. Parks, they now deem offensive behavior and speech to be ‘harassing’ and ‘intimidating,’ not merely expressive. 

But the courts have seen through this strategic misrepresentation. In fact, says attorney Harvey Silvergate, co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, “‘Hostile environment’ legal concepts . . . are simply powerless to overcome the near-absolute protection for free speech that the Supreme Court has consistently developed in this century, and the clear refusal of the Court to allow back-door legal approaches to breach that protection, whether the approach be cloaked in the language of civil rights, public accommodation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or creation of a hostile educational environment.”


In ruling campus speech codes to be unconstitutional, courts have therefore understood the real intent of cases such as the current one at Johns Hopkins: not to suppress all speech and attitudes, but merely those ideas with which the moral gatekeepers disagree, those ideas and political beliefs that are unfashionable.


It cannot have escaped the notice of those who watch the goings-on on American campuses, for instance, that there was another Halloween affair this year that created some understandable controversy when student Saad Saadi came to the house party of University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann and was photographed with her dressed as an Arab suicide-bomber, complete with a keffiyeh, a toy Kalashnikov rifle, and sticks of fake explosives strapped to his chest.  Once the photos were made public, Gutmann was quick to proclaim that the terrorist costume was “clearly offensive and I was offended by it,” but Saadi was never suspended, punished, let alone censured, for “harassing” or “intimidating” certain individuals, precisely because it is perfectly acceptable on campuses for students and faculty to embrace anti-American, anti-Israel, and Leftist sentiment and never be called on their behavior.


And the Johns Hopkins administration has previously demonstrated its own hypocrisy when dealing with issues of free speech. In  May this year, 2000 copies of the conservative, student-run Carrollton Record were confiscated from campus by University officials who were unhappy with a story the paper had published that questioned why students funds were used for an April lecture by gay pornography director Chi Chi LaRue, an event sponsored by the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA). The newspaper had questioned the propriety, not to mention the educational value, of such a guest, particularly since Mr. LaRue, “a self-proclaimed ‘condom-nazi,’” delivered a provocative speech about sexual perversion and distributed complimentary pornographic DVDs to the rapt audience.


Apparently, this was speech that the University could live with; the reporting of it, however, was altogether too much. Officials seized the entire edition of the newspaper, and contended that the reason “was that the depiction of DSAGA members on the cover of the May issue constituted harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.” In the curious world of campus ‘free speech,’ a lecture to students by a sexually-deviant pornographer is not offensive, but reporting about it somehow is.

Administrators at Johns Hopkins seemingly hold the notion that free speech is only good when it articulates politically correct, seemingly hate-free, views of protected victim or minority groups. But great legal minds, including such jurists as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., have always been dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. For Holmes, the protection of free speech was of particular importance, not only to allow discourse of popular topics, but, even more importantly, in instances where unpopular or hateful speech is deemed offensive and unworthy of being heard. “If there is any principle of the Constitution,” he observed, “that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”


Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, director of Boston University’s Program in Book and Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education, writes frequently on higher education, politics, culture, law, marketing, and housing.