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Johns Hopkins University bans pro-life fetal development display as ‘disturbing,’ then reverses decision - for now

Dustin Siggins Dustin Siggins Follow Dustin

BALTIMORE, MD, April 14, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A Johns Hopkins University student group says the college threatened to suppress a pro-life display, then reversed its decision and agreed to allow a pro-life display at the institution's annual Spring Fair. However, the policy that triggered the decision is still on the books – a fact that a student pro-life leader told LifeSiteNews means that the group could be censored again at any time.

The university's Arts and Crafts Committee told the North Baltimore Pro-Life Study Group that the group could not present a display of fetal development, because it "contains triggering and disturbing images and content."

The group had erected a display at the annual event for three decades.

A picture of the display, provided to LifeSiteNews, shows a table with images and dolls showing babies at various stage of fetal development. None of the images or figures are graphic, nor do they show any of the realities of abortion.

The committee told the group's secretary, Sheila Wharam, that she is "welcome to submit alternative displays for approval. We will also refund you in full if you decide you cannot participate in Fair without the use of your display."

According to an email provided to LifeSiteNews by Andrew Guernsey, the president of Johns Hopkins' student pro-life group, the Arts and Crafts Committee has changed course, allowing the Study Group "to fully participate in Spring Fair with their regular display."

The reversal came 36 hours after Guernsey, who heads the student group Voice for Life, formally complained about the decision against Wharam, and decried a policy against "triggering and disturbing images and content" at Spring Fair.

Another email provided to LifeSiteNews shows that the student committee specifically targeted Wharam for her pro-life display.

The email, which was sent in response to Wharam questioning the rejection of her display, says that the committee "made changes to the [display] contract due to feedback we received identifying your fetus models as triggering to students on campus. In asking that you submit an alternate display, we, The Arts and Crafts Committee, were doing our best to take these recommendations into consideration.

"Out of respect for our relationship of the past 30 years, we would appreciate if you refrained from using the fetus models," the committee said. “We hope you understand that our intention is not to restrict your freedom of speech or expression, but rather to create an inclusive and respectful environment for all.”

Last year, the student-led committee updated its "Non-Profit and Student Vendors" contract to say that "any images a vendor plans to display at his/her booth must be pre-approved by the Arts and Crafts Committee. The Arts and Crafts Committee has the right to reject illegal, vulgar, triggering, or otherwise disturbing images."

The email to vendors, which was sent on March 30, also says that "[t]his update requires all of you to send in a new signed contract. This update also requires that the Arts and Crafts committee must OK your display. You are welcome to send us PDF copies of your posters or other pictures of your displays."

According to the email, the goal by the committee is to ensure "a positive and safe environment."

Wharam, however, did not take this decision lying down. In an email provided by Guernsey, she asked "what is the definition” of triggering? “Is it published somewhere?"

"Was the feedback you received about my booth in the nature of a 'heckler’s veto?'" continued Wharam. "A college campus where two sides of an issue can be discussed is the wrong place to let this happen, but abortion businesses and their supporters try it all the time."

"My second question is: Does it make sense for a world class college like Hopkins allied to the third-ranked medical school in the country to refuse to allow an exhibit of a physiologically accurate depiction of human development, something students see in high school," asked Wharam.

In his lengthy email alleging various violations of campus policies and constitutional standards, Guernsey wrote that the "'Offensiveness' Policy...clearly violates the [Student Government Association] Constitution."

"Worse, the Committee’s denial of the Study Group’s application is impermissibly based on the Study Group’s political views and speech. As an SGA-chartered organization, Spring Fair is required to follow the SGA Constitution, including its free speech clause. I hope you will reverse the Arts and Crafts Committee’s unconstitutional decision and ensure that students at Spring Fair are exposed to diverse and thought-provoking viewpoints, no matter how 'controversial' they are," Guernsey wrote.

Guernsey cited Section 5 of the Student Government Association Constitution, which he noted says “students have a right to free speech in all matters relating to the SGA. The spirit of this sentiment shall be extended to all student activities on the Homewood campus.”

"We believe that the JHU Spring Fair's new...policy...and its discriminatory action against Mrs. Wharam based on her pro-life speech amounts to unjust and unconstitutional form of viewpoint-based prior restraint and censorship in violation of Section 5 of the SGA Constitution," accused Guernsey.

In a discussion about the committee's policy, Guernsey pointed LifeSiteNews to protests by the campus' pro-abortion group, Voice for Choice, which in 2013 had members protest the pro-life table at the fair by going topless. In his email, he claimed that "the Policy permits three members of the Spring Fair 2015 Arts and Crafts Committee to unilaterally and subjectively decide what is 'triggering' or 'disturbing,'" which Guernsey said "exerts a chilling effect on the discussion of difficult or controversial topics on campus.

This, says Guernsey, is just the latest in a series of efforts by student leaders at Johns Hopkins University to prevent pro-life discussions on campus. "The JHU student government, which ultimately controls Spring Fair, in the recent past has fought tooth and nail to keep our pro-life group off campus, rejecting our group's approval repeatedly until the SGA Judiciary forced them to approve us. A top SGA official even maligned our pro-life group as the equivalent a white supremacist organization, and our case received national attention."

"Even when the pro-choice group Voice for Choice threatened to file baseless harassment charges against us and did a shirtless protest of our spring fair table in the past, we publicly defended their right to free speech to protest us," noted Guernsey. "Johns Hopkins should protect the campus as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, particularly for controversial debates like abortion, even when such discussions inevitably cause offense. Campus bullies at student government at Hopkins seem to only care about the feelings and rights of leftist activists."

Guernsey's formal complaint, which went to Wharam, the three student committee members who decided Wharam's displays violated the new policy, and two Student Government Association officials as well as two administration members, was sent shortly after midnight yesterday. The email requested a follow-up today, but "we have yet to hear from the 'advisors' who approved the 'offensiveness policy,'" Guernsey told LifeSiteNews. "Clearly they are giving advice in violation of the university's commitment to free expression on campus. The policy was implemented without notifying or consulting the campus community."

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"We agree with the committee that abortion is 'disturbing' – in fact, the disturbing reality that abortion kills an innocent human being is why we so vigorously oppose abortion," says the pro-life student leader, who asked in his formal protest, "Will gay and lesbian groups be banned from Spring Fair because some religious people find homosexual activity 'disturbing'?”

Students for Life of America president Kristan Hawkins decried Johns Hopkins' decision to target Wharam, telling LifeSiteNews that "once again, Johns Hopkins University has gone out of its way to discriminate and shut down those with whom they disagree. Instead of allowing a reasonable dialogue about the biological development of human persons and the effects of abortion, the JHU Spring Arts and Crafts Committee has decided to bully their opinions unto others using the guise of 'emotional triggers.'"

A LifeSiteNews call to Johns Hopkins' Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Kevin Shollenberger, was not returned. Terry Martinez, Associate Vice Provost/Dean of Student Life, was out of the office on Monday. A call to the Spring Fair committee was not returned by press time.

Guernsey said that while he was pleased Johns Hopkins' "reversed course and approved this fetal model display...the question remains whether JHU will revoke the 'offensiveness' and 'triggering' policy they forced into everyone's contracts."

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