Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hopkins must temper the impulse to censor

(A shortened and softened version of this editorial was originally published in the JHU Newsletter, of which I am the Opinions Editor. This is my original version.)

Earlier this week, Whiting School of Engineering Dean Andrew Douglass instructed Hopkins cryptology professor Matthew Green to take down a blog post he’d written in criticism of NSA policies in his field of expertise. Later that day, the order was retracted, and an apology issued. Further details of this story can be found in our news feature on page B9.

What you will not find on page B9 are the full details of this story, for nobody at the university seems willing to provide them. Multiple sources sought for comment were slow or uneager to clarify, such that the specifics surrounding what happened remain murky.

This is unfortunate, because when facts are scarce, there’s a temptation to substitute conjecture in their stay. The Applied Physics Lab’s connections with the Defense Industry are well known, and have been the subject of prior controversy as recently as last spring. Cynical minds have already invented all sorts of hypotheses on where these orders truly originated. Until the university opens up, the Editorial Board has no ammunition with which to dispel these allegations.

Even so, we suspect these accusations are wholly unsubstantiated. There is not yet reason to believe that the official explanation of the incident is anything but the truth. For his part, Dean Douglass has already admitted he acted too quickly and without basis, and has apologized for it. It’s difficult to be outraged by an honest mistake, and as a standalone case, this may have been entirely forgivable.

But unfortunately for the Hopkins community, this is not a standalone case.  It is merely one instantiation of a long stream of cases in which other objectives – perceived safety, preventing student offense, limiting negative publicity, etc. – have outweighed free speech concerns in university policies and decisions. Even as Hopkins took a step closer to attaining President Daniels’ “Top 10 by 2020” objective in this week’s US News college rankings, it ranked in the bottom 10 schools in the country for free speech according to the independent, non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

With this recent history in mind, one would hope the University would be doing everything in its power to shed the perception of censorship. One would hope that upon hearing of this situation, in the absence of first hand proof that something illegal was taking place, the university’s first impulse would be to defend their faculty. And taken in this context, the events of this week speak volumes about where the university’s priorities lie. Universities with a sincere, rather than superficial commitment to free speech in practice would presume protection for all scholarly faculty articles, placing the burden on the accuser to prove why an exception to this de facto position is warranted. That Hopkins officials did the opposite suggests they are guided more by an aversion to controversy than by a heartfelt concern for our right to speak our mind.

If the university wishes to defeat this perception, offering greater leniency on the side of the speaker in future cases would do much to assuage our concerns.

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