We have been discussing how colleges and universities are expanding the range of micro aggressions and hostile or hate speech to troubling levels in terms of free speech and associational rights. Now the expression of political views in the presidential election has been added to speech that students have declared threatening. Someone at Emory chalked the name of Republican candidate Donald Trump around campus. Nothing unusual about that. Students often chalk up statements on sidewalks for causes or candidates. It would not be seen as in any way unusual and the next rain brings a clean slate. However, the statement of support for Trump has led to a protest calling for the supporter to be punished or expelled and for the President to express condemnation of such political affiliations. The students want a statement of support for Trump to be treated as the same as the writing of a swastika. The students have said that they feel threatened in the wake of the statements of political support for Trump.
Students organized immediately after seeing the statements of support and had a meeting with Emory President James W. Wagner to demand action. Students demanded to know “Why did the swastikas [on the AEPi house in Fall 2014] receive a quick response while these chalkings did not?” They were not happy when Wagner reportedly responded that that was a case of an outside threat. The questions reportedly became more pointed like “What do we have to do for you to listen to us?” One student demanded that Emory send out a University-wide email to “decry the support for this fascist, racist candidate.” To his credit, Wagner refused to denounce a presidential candidate. The students then demanded diversity hires into the “higher positions” of the University, including the Board of Trustees and the faculty in general.
What was particularly chilling is the demand for action on faculty members who have not publicly denounced Trump or his views under the view that “[Faculty] are supporting this rhetoric by not ending it.” This failure, the students insisted, have created a threatening environment and that “people of color are struggling academically because they are so focused on trying to have a safe community and focus on these issues [related to having safe spaces on campus].”
Wagner is reportedly preparing an email and has launched an investigation to find the culprit. University police are looking at security cameras. What will they do if they find some student with the incriminating chalk? Will she or he be expelled or disciplined or publicly denounced?
I have some obvious concerns about such action. My primary concern is whether this is the truly the first time in the history of Emory University that students or faculty made political statements on sidewalks. I doubt it. Would the same effort to hunt down the writers occur if the writing referred to Sanders or Black Lives Matter or Greenpeace? If not, this would seem a content-based effort that raises serious issues of free speech. Moreover, the expectation of some of these students that faculty should be pushed to denounce Trump like some Pol Pot reeducation camp is chilling.
I have written previously how free speech is under attack in the West and we appear to be raising one of the most anti-free speech generations in the history of our country. In the name of “tolerance,” we are treating free speech as the scourge of society and a right that must be carefully controlled to “protect” others. These students believe that political views are now within the gambit of threatening speech. We have come full circle from the sixties where baby boomers discovered political and social activism on campuses — a time of great upheaval but also great exploration. However now that students and staff are embracing a conservative, the desire is to have official condemnations and investigations. Trump has clearly generated both great support and great opposition. His views, however, (particularly on immigration) are shared by millions of citizens. Indeed, those same views are prevailing in part of Europe. This is a wonderful opportunity to have a passionate and substantive debate. Why not let all political flowers bloom on campuses? Rather than immediately seek to silence those with countervailing views, the first inclination should be to engage in the debate and value the exchange of ideas.
Before Wagner takes action, the faculty should at a minimum ask for the university to address how it has previously addressed chalk art and political statements. If all chalking is now going to be treated as an offense, will the university be distinguishing art but not political art? The problem with chalk crimes is, forgive the pun, drawing lines on what is prohibited or permitted speech.
What do you think?
Source: Emory Wheel