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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 11, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 14
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

A Civil Tongue

It is time to talk about freedom of speech.

Recent events on the Homewood campus have provoked allegations that the university is not sufficiently protecting the free expression of ideas among our students. In particular, the outcry and controversy surrounding a racially demeaning invitation to a fraternity party, and the resulting sanctions imposed by the Student Conduct Board (which are currently on appeal), are being construed as an attempt by the university to prohibit speech it doesn't particularly want to hear.

I disagree.

Tempers are hot, and people (both within and outside the university) are upset. So it is especially worthwhile to step back for a moment to try to gain some perspective.

Freedom of speech controversies are nothing new at Johns Hopkins, as you would expect of an institution that chooses as its motto "The truth shall make you free." Nor is the university's unsettled history of race relations — which is the other important factor at play in this controversy — without its considerable weight of unhappiness and bad feelings. As an institution, we have an imperfect record in both regards.

In 1940, former Hopkins professor and Maryland Communist Party branch chairman Albert Blumberg came to deliver a speech called "The Communist Approach" on the Homewood campus. But the speech never happened. Blumberg and his audience of several hundred were locked out of Latrobe Hall, apparently by order of Dean Edward Berry. Undaunted, they marched across the street to Wyman Park, where Blumberg was soon arrested for speaking in the park without a permit and reportedly threatened by one of the Baltimore City police officers with "We oughta bounce a brick off yer head!" The student-run Hopkins News-Letter was on the scene to record it all, but university administration informed then editor (and later professor of history) John Higham that his continued enrollment at the university would be endangered if the story ran. (The story did run, after Higham resigned as editor just prior to the story being set to type. He went on to earn his Hopkins degree the next year.)

Nearly three decades later, The News-Letter was in hot water again, this time when a satiric cover story modeled on Time magazine's Man-of-the-Year feature lumped mass-murderers Richard Speck and Charles Whitman with then president Lyndon Johnson, whom the paper described as a former Texas ploughboy who killed Vietnamese for profit and pleasure. My predecessor Milton Eisenhower was apparently so incensed at the article that he suspended the two editors, and defended his actions when interviewed in the next day's Baltimore Sun.

In both these occurrences, and on other occasions in the past 130 years, it seems to me there is legitimate cause to question our commitment to free speech and to the pursuit of that truth that will make us free. The university did actively try to suppress speech it found not to its liking — speech that, regardless of whether it was distasteful to some, was of a substantive and serious nature.

But I think we all know 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.

We are very fortunate at Johns Hopkins that one of the nation's foremost experts on civility, Professor Pier Massimo Forni, is a faculty member here in our Department of German and Romance Languages. In the past, I have often recommended his book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, and it seems appropriate in this case to quote Professor Forni directly: "Respect for others is the core principle of civility. And it's all-inclusive. You don't pick and choose when it comes to respect."

That, in a nutshell, is what I think the university is trying to address on this occasion. We are talking about common respect and decency. We are talking about — and here's what is truly politically incorrect — basic good manners. Irrelevant in the 21st century, you say? I wonder. The British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke had this thought on the subject: "The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or smooth, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in."

To any who doubt the consequence of teaching respect and civility, or who claim we are out of line in demanding that all members of our community comport themselves honorably in their dealings with others, I say this: Look around you. Look at the world we live in, where so many societies are literally falling apart because group A would rather encounter death and destruction than show basic human respect for group B. These are not trivial matters. Let us never underestimate the value of civility, not just to protect people's feelings but to preserve the possibility of freedom itself.

There are some who have suggested that this is a matter for the courts to decide. Personally, I side with Edmund Burke — the law is only capable of touching us here and there, now and then. We don't need the lawyers. We just need to show one another tolerance, and mutual respect. Moving forward from here, I hope we will all recommit ourselves to this bedrock principle of our community.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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