John McCormack: Steven Knapp v. the First Amendment

Students and faculty have lauded GW President-elect Steven Knapp with glowing praise since his hiring was announced last December. Highly touted for his managerial, academic and financial abilities, Knapp is expected to accomplish great things at GW. What most students don’t know about Knapp, however, are the more troubling aspects of his record at Johns Hopkins University regarding restriction of free speech.

During Knapp’s tenure as an upper-level administrator at Johns Hopkins, that university infringed upon free speech by punishing students for writings it found offensive and enacting an official university policy that states “rude, disrespectful behavior … will not be tolerated.” Private universities are not subject to the First Amendment, and Knapp has defended Johns Hopkins’ right to censor the speech of its students. Is this a policy we should expect him to bring to GW?

I hope not. Simply because universities may restrict speech does not make it right. Johns Hopkins could suspend students for incivility just as easily as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University could suspend a student for blasphemy. But at least students at Liberty knew what they were getting into when they signed up. How many kids coming to a supposed bastion of free inquiry like Johns Hopkins thought they could be suspended for offending sacred cows?

One of the defining free speech cases during Knapp’s time at Johns Hopkins began last October when Justin Park, a student and social chair of the school’s Sigma Chi fraternity, posted an event on Facebook for a fraternity party entitled “Halloween in the Hood.” The invite employed rhetoric stereotypical of so-called “ghetto culture,” such as, “When ma f*ckin baby daddy git back, he’ll bust ya in yo grill and git Sheniquah’s a** back ova’ heea.”

A university official ordered Park to remove the event; he initially complied but later reposted an event that included similar rhetoric. The party aroused protests on campus and nationwide. Hopkins responded by initially punishing Park with a three-semester suspension, requiring him to perform community service and be educated about diversity before returning to school.

Knapp defended the right to punish Park, telling a group of Johns Hopkins students, “If students are intimidated, harassed or even sort of scared off from an event, because of the way in which the language was couched, we regard that as an area that the university can regulate, because it is speech of the university.”

While Knapp’s logic is absurd, its implications are frightening. At least theoretically, leaders of student groups could be punished for cracking jokes from Chappelle’s Show at parties because it could be viewed as “speech of the university.”

Even more troubling, Knapp said, “There’s no way to define in advance what counts as a violation …. You have to work these things case by case.” So, is there any way to know if stereotyping people who live in trailer parks in rural Maryland will incur the same penalty as stereotyping people who live in the ghetto of Baltimore?

One of the foundations of the United States is a government of laws and not men. Should Knapp enact a vague policy against “rude” speech at GW, students could be suspended at the whims of bureaucrats for crimes they do not even know they are committing.

Incivility on college campuses is indeed a cause for concern. College should refine, rather than coarsen, the character of students. But civility must not and cannot be created by the coercive actions of speech and thought police.

Do we doubt that in an open arena we lack the ability to persuade others why some speech is wrong or offensive? Or do we desire speech codes because we simply lack the courage to confront others? We should have faith that through the free exchange of ideas, truth will conquer all.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs and history, is a Hatchet columnist.

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