The Johns Hopkins University office of institutional equity has determined that pro-life students who want to conduct sidewalk counseling outside of a Baltimore abortion clinic are not engaging in harassment under university policies.

The students in Voices for Life have requested recognition from the student government association (SGA) but were turned down because the student government believed that the group would be harassing members of the public, in violation of school policies.

The student newspaper, the Johns-Hopkins News-Letter, reported last week that the executive branch of the SGA determined that Voices for Life’s “intended actions as a club that clearly violates the JHU Harassment and Code of Conduct policies” because the group wanted to engage in sidewalk counseling.

But now the university office charged with enforcing and interpreting the federally mandated anti-harassment policy has determined that sidewalk counseling is not harassment. According to the vice provost for institutional equity, Caroline Laguerre-Brown, an attorney, “A student group’s distribution of literature and advocacy of its viewpoint, in the manner set out in your email, would not constitute harassment within the meaning of these policies. In fact, such conduct is fully in accord with the university’s robust commitment to the values of free expression and open debate that is articulated in these policies.”

The president of Voice of Life, Andrew Guernsey, told the student paper that “sidewalk counseling” involved students standing by the abortion clinic in Baltimore and “in a peaceful, non-aggressive manner, hand[ing] out literature, provid[ing] information about life issues and the abortion clinic itself.”

Voices for Life has appealed its rejection to the judiciary council of the SGA.

But the bias of the SGA has already been exposed. In an e-mail chain revealed last week, members of the student government were caught comparing the pro-life students to white supremacists.

An executive board member of the SGA wrote, “And this is why we don't approve groups like Voice for Life,” and linked to a Think Progress article on a White Student Union group at Towson University that has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In separate emails, other members of the student government write that being “anti-abortion” constitutes harassment. Another student questioned the point of allowing Voices for Life, asking “How is this group adding to the student's health and wellbeing? If their sole and fundamental purpose is to stop students from having abortions, that's not what we need.”

Joe Luppino-Esposito is a writer and attorney in Virginia.

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