GWU President Triggers Free Speech Fight After Declaring Posters Criticizing the Chinese Government Offensive

Mark Wrighton, the new president of George Washington University, triggered a national free speech controversy when he declared that he was “personally offended” by posters criticizing the Chinese government’s hosting of the Olympics. The posters attacked China for its human rights record, including allegations of genocide against the Uyghur Muslim minority. Wrighton not only declared his outrage at the political posters but suggested that an investigation would be launched. He later back-tracked and issued a statement Monday that the posters are political speech and would not be investigated. Wrighton admitted that “I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.” The university came to the correct position but the initial response of President Wrighton was wrong and chilling for free speech on our campus.  The posters are jarring in their stark and violent images. Moreover, I do not think that President Wrighton is dismissive of the human rights allegations. However, the actions taken in this case were dismissive, initially, of the values of free speech.The posters were obvious political expression on an important controversy over human rights. However, the Chinese Cultural Association wrote online “In American society, freedom of political expression is everyone’s right, but inciting racial hatred and ethnic conflicts is not allowed regardless of national borders.” That claim of free speech as harmful is an all-too-common rationale today for shutting down speech on campuses. It is the very basis used by authoritarian countries like China to crush dissenters.The CCA added

“The school accepted the complaint from the students and stated that the school police would be instructed to investigate the incident. A person in charge of the school’s multicultural office expressed regret that this harmful and offensive poster was posted on the school. The principal also responded to the incident, saying that the content of these posters also offended him….The central ideas expressed are not based on indisputable opinions but, on the contrary, on highly controversial political disputes.”

The university should have responded that free speech does not have to be “indisputable” to be allowed. Indeed, it is most valuable in exercising dissenting views on controversies of our time. The CCA was wrong in my view to file the complaint to seek action to silence these views rather than responding with its own posters and viewpoints.

In his initial statement, Wrighton said that he was “personally offended by the posters” and said the school was “working to have all of these offensive posters removed as soon as possible.” He added that “I treasure the opportunity to work with talented people from all over the world, including China . . . I, too, am saddened by this terrible event, and we will undertake an effort to determine who is responsible.”

This was not a “terrible event.” It was an example of free and open debate at an institution of higher education.  The immediate impulse to tear down the posters (and launch an investigation) is alarming from any president of a major university. While Wrighton showed the integrity to admit his error, his initial inclination to shutdown free speech shocked many of us in the free speech community. It is the type of hair-triggered censorship that has eroded free speech on our campus and the comfort level of students in speaking out on issues.

We previously discussed a new study showing that sixty-five (65) percent agreed that people on campus today are prevented from speaking freely. The poll is additional evidence of the failure of administrators and faculty to maintain campuses as forums for free thought and intellectual engagement. This study shows that conservatives and Republicans on campus feel the loss of free speech most acutely. That is consistent with other studies. For example, an earlier poll at the University of North Carolina found that conservative students are 300 times more likely to self-censor themselves due to the intolerance of opposing views on our campuses.


The posters in this case were obviously political speech even with the most cursory review. The 2022 Winter Games have been dubbed the “Genocide Olympics” by critics who believe the competition should not be held in the country. The posters featured drawings made by Badiucao, a dissident Chinese artist, who published a screenshot of Wrighton’s initial email and demanded “an explanation why exposing CCP’s abuse offends him.”

“It is misleading & ignorant to call my art ‘anti-China’ or ‘racist’ giving fact I am Chinese artist,” the artist wrote on Twitter. “The smear campaign from CCP affiliated groups like this directly harms #FreeSpeech in [universities] … [GWU] must protest & defend rights of its students to voice out for human rights.”

The Olympic face plant for the university in this controversy was due to the same censor-first-inquire-later approach that we have seen from other universities. Presidents are often eager to get ahead of controversies by yielding to demands to silence critics or dissenting voices. In some cases like the Smith controversy, university presidents have refused to admit error even after extensive changes were ordered and staff wrongly implicated.

In this case, President Wrighton on Monday stated:

“Last week, the university learned of posters on campus depicting images that alarmed some members of our community, and we began to receive a number of concerns through official university reporting channels that cited bias and racism against the Chinese community. I also received an email directly from a student who expressed concerns.

“At that time, and without more context on the origin or intent of the posters, I responded hastily to the student, writing that I, too, was concerned. University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed. These responses were mistakes. Every member of the GW community should feel welcome and supported, but I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.”

I remain concerned about the controversy and the statement that “University staff also responded to ensure the posters were removed.” Who made that decision?

Someone at the university decided to rip down political posters. The university should have some process of review before such an extraordinary act is ordered by any official or office. Indeed, it should have a committee that can be called upon to review such an emergency request and allow members to advise the President before the university censors speech.

Wrighton added “There is no university investigation underway, and the university will not take any action against the students who displayed the posters. I want to be very clear: I support freedom of speech—even when it offends people—and creative art is a valued way to communicate on important societal issues.”

Again, I am thankful to President Wrighton for admitting his error, but the university needs to recognize the lingering concerns over this incident. It is hard to assure people that you are a supporter of freedom of speech on the heels of an impulsive act of censorship. We need to explore reforms, including the suggested committee, to offer more than personal testimonials to support free speech at George Washington University.

George Washington once famously remarked that “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” As an institution of higher education, we are dedicated to fighting ignorance and intolerance. Free speech and academic freedom are the values that are the essential elements in achieving that mission. In this instance, the university and its president failed in our commitment to the school and our students.


149 thoughts on “GWU President Triggers Free Speech Fight After Declaring Posters Criticizing the Chinese Government Offensive”



    “I should have taken more time to understand the entire situation before commenting.”

    – Mark Wrighton

    Please read on in the Constitution, Mr. Wrighton.

    America “should have taken more time to understand the entire situation” and known that the freedom of speech is absolute and absolutely may personally offend.

    America “should have taken more time to understand the entire situation” and known that the freedom to “pursue happiness” includes the freedom of mobility, freedom of enterprise, freedom from regulation, and freedom from punitive and confiscatory taxation.

    America “should have taken more time to understand the entire situation” and known that the entire communist (liberal, progressive, socialist, democrat, RINO) American welfare state is antithetical and unconstitutional.

    Article 1, Section 8, provides Congress the power to tax ONLY for “…general Welfare…,” omitting and, thereby, excluding any power to tax for individual welfare, specific welfare, redistribution of wealth or charity. The same article provides Congress the power to regulate ONLY the value of money, the fair and even “flow” of commerce among the States, and land and naval Forces. Additionally, the 5th Amendment right to private property is not qualified by the Constitution and is, therefore, absolute, allowing Congress no power to claim or exercise dominion over private property, the sole exception being the power to “take” private property for public use.

    Government exists, under the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to provide maximal freedom to individuals while it is severely limited and restricted to merely facilitating that maximal freedom of individuals through the provision of security and infrastructure.

    The entire communistic American welfare state is unconstitutional including, but not limited to, matriculation affirmative action, grade-inflation affirmative action, employment affirmative action, quotas, welfare, food stamps, minimum wage, rent control, social services, forced busing, public housing, utility subsidies, WIC, SNAP, TANF, HAMP, HARP, TARP, HHS, HUD, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Labor, Energy, Obamacare, Social Security, Social Security Disability, Social Security Supplemental Income, Medicare, Medicaid, “Fair Housing” laws, “Non-Discrimination” laws, etc.

    Please read it, Mr. Wrighton.

  2. The acts of the Chinese government are indefensible. That is all one need know when weighing the options in the debate. Killing innocent people ‘just because’ is not, never has been, and never will be ok. To those saying anything to the contrary about China, including our Democratic Party, you are delusional. I guess the ‘Free Tibet’ bumper stickers were just virtue signaling 20 years ago. Hint: Tibet is still not free. It just isn’t hip at elite parties to say so anymore. And the people that used to display those stickers with the most self-righteousness (not to mention the hate toward SUV’s at the time, which they all now seem to drive) are the same people that now support Biden, Pelosi, and the CCP. Stop voting Dem. if you can’t stomach voting for Republicans, Libertarians, or Independents, then don’t vote at all as a form of protest. Either that, or your purported values meant absolutely northing whatsoever. The rubber always eventually meets the road, and all that I see is that in those moments most ‘Progressives’ are and always were privileged cowards addicted to personal comfort.

  3. It may be that the President Of GWU just wants to exercise his “legitimate political discourse”

    1. Fishwings,

      I won’t be persuaded by Turley’s arguments until he takes questions challenging his arguments. I hope that he will submit himself to a debate with someone worthy of his talents.

      Turley believes that it is wrong to *chill* free speech; he detests the idea that someone should self-censor for fear of suffering negative consequences as result of his speech. My question is- shouldn’t certain speech not be chilled? Turley called for Trump to be censored by Congress for his “reckless” 1/6 speech. Would not a historic Congressional censure of a president not chill Trump and future presidents from speaking freely before a mob? A censure is an implicit demand that a person should not express such censured speech, that is, to self-censor!

      Chilling speech is not tantamount to censoring speech. People are perfectly free to speak the same rhetoric which got them censured. If society cannot legitimately bad chill speech, how are we to reduce the “age of rage” which Turley rightly condemns?

  4. Look Who’s Here!


    This commenter has long suspected the presence of Russian trolls on Johnathan Turley’s blog. And here such a troll makes his presence known with an in-your-face reference.

    On this thread, 11:40 am: giocon1 says,

    “Now, if China had 800 military bases around the world, was leading NATO into a false flag aggression against Russia, and strangling the Europeans into ditching peaceful trade with anyone but the US…

    Let’s be honest, this wasn’t written by your garden variety American conservative. He’s not some farmer in downstate Illinois. Nor is he an oil rigger from Texas. This is a professional troll blogging from Russia; using Johnathan Turley’s blog to promote a Putin-friendly message.

    The idea here seems to be that Putin has a perfect right to overwhelm Ukraine with a massive invasion force. And any western leader recognizing Russia’s naked aggression is plotting a ‘false flag operation’.

    The fact that this troll feels comfortable enough to write such a comment here speaks volumes about the sentiments of Turley’s Trumpists. They ain’t your grandfather’s Republicans!

    1. Anonymous, those of us who have working brain cells have known this for a while. The sockpuppets make up 25% more comments. Turley does not have the crowd he thinks he has.

      1. That you imply ‘working brain cells’ should be the parody comment of the year on this blog. That you say it in earnest almost redefines ‘parody’ as a word in the English language. That you say it when anyone here can very easily go back and quote your own comments back at you makes it some kind of triple-English language-parfait. Well done. Somebody call Merriam-Webster. Though I wouldn’t exactly call that an accomplishment worth bragging about.

          1. It must be difficult for you, exhausting your entire vocabulary in one sentence.

    1. Quoting specifics from your site: “For example, there is widespread online proliferation of false or misleading narratives regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19. Grievances associated with these themes inspired violent extremist attacks during 2021.”

      This irrational fear represents a government that is not representing its people but is instead afraid of them. That is how repressive regimes act.

      1. regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19. Grievances

        I focus on the precise language.


        There are 3007 counties in the United States. MAYBE 12 counties are in question. Maybe. The math would be, almost, not quite .4% four tenths of one percent.

        So we know MDM is a core tool used by the Dept of Homeland, against citizens

        Covid MDM from 2 months ago is now official govt policy. So Homeland security is gaslighting the whole nation by inventing dangers that are figments of the lefts imagination.

    2. “The United States remains in a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM) introduced and/or amplified by foreign and domestic threat actors. These threat actors seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest, which could potentially inspire acts of violence.”

      “…and other forms of mis-dis-and mal-information (MDM)…”

      Watch for the term, “MDM” to be hitting the CNN/MSNBC airwaves with regularity…..because what they want to pound into all our little brains is that anti-vaxxers refusing to take the jabs are a threat to democracy itself! And truckers, too!

  5. Get a bullhorn. Go outside a Cat O Lick church. Shout rants against priests who sexually attack boys.

  6. I was thinking to comment on the article when I read the beginning of it.

    It is refreshing that the author captured everything that I felt had to be said on the matter thus avoiding a comment due to the lack of reporting.

    Very balanced in my opinion.

    Great work.

  7. “inciting racial hatred and ethnic conflicts is not allowed regardless of national borders”

    I wonder how many CCP trolls do this on a daily basis over here. I mean if Russia might be doing it, why not them?

  8. How often do we see the “gut reaction” is to silence speech, and when called out for the infringement of rights, either nothing changes or it gets worse. Wrighton didn’t quietly reverse course, he very publicly owned his mistake. The initial decision by Wrighton was not only a clear violation of rights, it was what has become “acceptable” at many colleges and universities. How many other faculty or administrators have come out publicly and taken responsibility for violating 1st amendment rights? This is a refreshing outcome and one that should be celebrated for bucking the “new normal” of censorship.

        1. Jeff,
          I’m not sure what you’d like me to comment on. The part before the dividing line, after the dividing line, or the two together?

          I do not watch Fox so I cannot comment on what Lin wrote, nor do I know it’s context (if it is part of a larger conversation).

          Regarding the Serrano piece, my response to Immersion is layered and complicated.

          One of my responses as I roll it around in my head is sort of how I feel about doormats with Bible verses–terrible idea!

          Should a person wipe their feet on God’s Word? I realize no disrespect is intended, but it is still a product that demonstrates little thought or consideration of the meaning.

          1. Rose,

            I take it that you would not advocate censoring Piss Christ, nor wish any negative consequences to befall the artist such that his free expression might be chilled.

            I just want to make sure that you are true to your free speech ideals when it comes to the desecration of items you regard as sacred.

            1. I would not want it censored. However, I do think there is a time and a place for such things. I would disagree with this piece being displayed in front of a church daycare center, for instance.

  9. The Woke culture reminds one of the Zero Sum Game Theory, which states in principle the total wins and losses add up to zero, thus one party benefits at the direct expense of another. Though not directly associated with behavior or motive it may further help define Woke’s intent.

    Woke could also be describe through F. Heider’s ‘attribution theory’. In short, ascribing characteristic to oneself or another person, inferring intent and motivational disposition, then used to account for conduct. Or in other parlance the “Yes But” means of denial.

    The WOKE movement is one of the most dangerous and naïve tracks the World has ever seen or embraced. It must be ridiculed, made fun of and STOPPED without haste.

  10. Cool. Love to see you have these ‘if you build it, it will come’ moments, Jon. Bold addressing the head honcho at the donut factory! Awesome…

    Oh yeah, I had to type this on my phone because my laptop is officially banned and censored from responding on your blog comments section.


  11. Amazing how leftists can be so clever about spotting human rights violations abroad, and so blind to them at home. Before taking up the crusade for Uighurs, Palestinians, or any other group, we should clean up our own filthy house. These crusades only add to the virtue-signaling on the left, and the equally disingenuous moral outrage against “communism” on the right. Now, if China had 800 military bases around the world, was leading NATO into a false flag aggression against Russia, and strangling the Europeans into ditching peaceful trade with anyone but the US…then maybe there would be some cause for concern. All countries have their “oppressed” peoples — Americans pick them up as “causes” and dump them just as fast when politics changes.

    1. Giocon is the kind of person that would have said, “hey, who are we to be critical of Hitler, we have Japanese internment camps right here”. Of course the internment camps were bad, very bad, a violation of the Constitution and taken at any other time would have been horribly insane. But of course when you compare our internment camps to what the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese were doing it “ADDS CONTEXT” as the “fact checkers” like to say.

      Giocon will compare cutting early voting from 3 to 2 weeks as being on par with Chinese treatment of muslims. Giocon will compare police shooting CRIMINALS that will not allow themselves to be arrested with torture and rape of innocents. Giocon hates America, always has and always will. Of course the GioCONS of the country also DEMAND that we allow all of Central America to come here illegally because “they deserve the right to live in such a great nation”.

      The left HATES AMERICA, they apologized for the Soviets at every turn and now it is the Chinese for whom they carry water.

  12. As someone who has an immediate family member who is an alumna of GWU, in the wake of this incident, a decision has been made to discontinue contributions to the University. Furthermore, we will make sure others within our social media reach are made aware of this incident which likely won’t get much if any mainstream media attention.

    1. “. . . discontinue contributions to the University.”

      Good for you. Bleed dry the anti-American madrasa.

  13. “The posters attacked China for its human rights record,”


    Guess what would happen if “The posters attacked the United States for its human rights record.”

    You won’t guess. You already know. They would be lauded by faculty and protected by university security.

    It has gotten that bad in ‘American’ academia…and in the WH, Congress, DOJ, etc….

    These people hate us and they don’t even hide it anymore.

  14. “[T]he Chinese Cultural Association wrote online ‘In American society, freedom of political expression is everyone’s right, but [criticizing China’s dictators] is not allowed regardless of national borders.”

    Now their statement is accurate.

    “. . . images that alarmed some members of our community . . .”

    You know what images are truly alarming to anyone who cherishes a civilized existence?

    — Images of the Bejing butchers slaughtering the innocent at Tiananmen Square

    — Images of the CCP secret police arresting dissenters in Hong Kong

    — Images of American corporate logos in China, sanctioning the evil of a dictatorship

    — Images of the propaganda value of hosting the Olympics in a totalitarian country (Did the world learn nothing from the infamous Nazi Olympics?)

    — Images of journalists and sports casters wagging their fingers at Americans who dare to criticize a country that enslaves its own people

    — Images of famous people kowtowing to totalitarians

  15. An authoritarian at first blush. That’s “disturbing” (I hate this word) for a college president, an educated person or the guy who hands you your Danish in the morning. Actually, it’s just plain stupid and scary that we have such unAmerican Americans in positions of authority. I’m guessing some university lawyer took our short pants Mussolini to task but that’s just wishful thinking given the DC mindset.

  16. By chance is there a significant Chinese student (paying full tuition) base? Reaction reminds me of the reactions from the Apple, NBA, Nike, Airbnb,..what do they have in common?

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