Anti-abortion group stirs speech debate at Hopkins

A group of students at the Johns Hopkins University is reviving a campus anti-abortion group that members say will perform "sidewalk counseling" — attempting to discourage pregnant women entering clinics from going through with the procedure.

But critics worry that the tactics of Voice for Life will harm the vulnerable women the group says it is trying to help.

On Tuesday, a panel of undergraduates will review a decision by the Hopkins Student Government Association to deny recognition to the group.

At stake are university funding and privileges that are available to officially sanctioned student clubs, with advantages that include the ability to use the university logo and host events and raise money on campus.

The effort has sparked a debate at Hopkins about abortion rights, free speech and the role of the university in accommodating a controversial group.

Hopkins is the latest area campus to be roiled by such issues. In a more extreme case, the efforts of a student at nearby Towson University to form a White Student Union and conduct night "crime watch" patrols have drawn international media attention.

Administrators at Towson have acknowledged Matthew Heimbach's right to free speech but have not recognized his group, saying it does not have a faculty sponsor or enough student members.

Students, faculty and administrators rallied last week to declare that his views do not reflect the values of the Towson community.

At Hopkins, Andrew Guernsey, the freshman working to revive a group that has been dormant since 2010, says members intend to assemble outside abortion clinics near the Homewood campus to speak with women in what he says will be a nonconfrontational manner.

The group, which opposes abortion, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia, plans also to hand out literature on campus.

Guernsey, 18, from Ave Maria, Fla., says the work is particularly important at a university that trains future doctors and nurses. The effort has been backed by Students for Life of America, a national anti-abortion organization that says it has helped to create and maintain 700 campus groups nationwide.

Guernsey says about 25 students at Hopkins have expressed an interest in joining Voice for Life.

"It's important that students have a dialogue," he said.

Hopkins senior Caitlin Fuchs-Rosner says she worries about the effects of sidewalk counseling on rape victims and others. She has been working with students and alumni to oppose the group.

"Group members would be approaching students and talking to them about how abortion is immoral," said Fuchs-Rosner, 21 of Scarsdale, N.Y. "That's an impingement on someone's personal beliefs."

Guernsey says such concerns stem from a misconception of his group's methods and aims.

He says Voice for Life is not affiliated with any religious or political organization. He cites a letter from Hopkins' Office of Institutional Equity, which found that the activism the group is proposing would not violate the university's anti-harassment policy or code of conduct.

"The case for life can be made in reason and science, and that's the case we're making," he said. "We're not affiliated with any religious or political groups. A case for the humanity of the unborn child can appeal to people of any faith or no faith."

Fuchs-Rosner says members' right to free speech is not at issue.

"No one has the power to tell this group not to speak about its views," she said. "No one is going to do that. The issue in contention is whether this group should get money."

Voice for Life applied to the Student Government Association for recognition earlier this year. Student legislators denied the application in March. The group will now appeal that decision before the student justices of the government's judiciary branch.

The Student Government Association released a brief statement that said it stands "by this student-led process and await[s] the results."

Treasurer Michael St. Germain said that many of the privileges available to recognized student groups, such as access to meeting space, are also available to students without recognition. He said recognized groups do have access to funding, but university money is not guaranteed.

Messages for the justices Monday were not returned. Their decision is expected within a week.

If they also withhold recognition, Guernsey says, the group will consider asking Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels to intervene.

David Rocah, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said it the university has the legal right to deny recognition to Voice for Life but would be "profoundly wrong" to do so.

"Even though private colleges and universities are not subject to the First Amendment, they hold themselves out as institutionally committed to the same principle of free speech and free inquiry and respect," he said.

"The student government's actions in denying reorganization to this club because they don't like their form of political protest is offensive, misguided and wrong, and completely antithetical to being an institution that values a diversity of opinions and viewpoints."

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said the student government should be "afforded the opportunity to review the earlier decision under its own policies and in light of the university's commitment to broad debate and freedom of expression."

"The Johns Hopkins University is strongly committed to open debate and to the values of free speech and academic freedom," O'Shea said in a statement. "These defining values of American higher education drive us to afford individuals and groups on campus the freedom to advocate for their views. The university's obligation is to create a community where freedom of inquiry and expression thrive."

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said allowing for open discussion of abortion on colleges campuses is key, because many women working toward a degree will face the decision about whether to carry a baby to term.

"Sadly, [Hopkins] isn't an isolated case," she said. "Regardless of how you feel about ... abortion, don't you think people should have the right to speak up about it?"

Monica Rex, a freshman biomedical engineering major who is working with Guernsey, said Hopkins made an institutional commitment to freedom of speech in the 1800s when it took as its official motto Veritas Vos Liberabit — "The truth will make you free."

"We love Johns Hopkins," said Rex, 19, of Orlando, Fla. "That's why it's important to us that it's a place where we can express different opinions. That's what makes this school so great. It brings together intelligent people so we can have intelligent conversations."

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