At Emory, Understanding of Free Speech so Bad it Makes a ‘Free Speech Zone’ Sound Good

By on November 9, 2011

You know standards for free speech on campus have fallen pretty far when a plan to establish a "free speech zone" policy seems like progress and not regression. Just such a move—a joint effort between students and administrators—is underway at Emory University, The Emory Wheel student newspaper reports. The Wheel‘s article merits quoting at length because it’s chock-full of infantilization from Emory’s administrators, as well as the perception—both from students and the administration—that free speech is something that requires permission to exercise and should be turned off the moment it becomes troublesome.

The Wheel reports that Student Government Association (SGA) president Adam McCall is leading the efforts on behalf of the student government. I can only say that I hope he is not representative of the Emory student body’s position on free speech. While his desire that the proposed free speech zone be available for use by students without reservation or prior notification is a good one, it doesn’t seem that he wants the area to be truly "free" for free speech, saying that "You need a place where you can put all of that stuff up and not worry about any sort of consequences unless, of course, it’s hateful." (Emphasis added.)

This is yet another instance of the false argument (one mindlessly repeated as gospel by legions of college students) that "hate speech" is somehow not free speech. As always, the question remains: Who decides what is hateful? It is troubling how blithely McCall (like so many others) skims over this gaping logical hole; of course hate speech isn’t free speech, he seems to say, as though the definition of "hate speech" had all the self-evidence of gravity or the phases of the moon.

So much for Emory’s own statement in university policy that "The University places a very high value on freedom of speech and on the opportunity for intellectual stimulation that can be a product of controversial content." So much for parody, satire, and other knife-edged humor, not to mention honest dialogue on topics on which students are apt to disagree, sometimes strongly. All of these might be called "hateful" by someone out there. What’s the point of even a limited "free speech zone" if speech protected by the First Amendment is to be forbidden?

The Wheel also reports that "College Dean of Students Bridget Guernsey Riordan noted that University administrators plan to move forward with the proposal, possibly by next semester, as soon as SGA is finished collecting research on free-expression zones at other institutions." So, Emory will "possibly" have this policy in place by 2012, just as soon as the SGA finishes researching its peer institutions’ free speech zone policies? One would hope that reading through a few such policies would quickly sour students on the idea that free speech is something that should be confined. If it’s research they want, they should start with FIRE’s extensive writings on free speech zones and our national reports on campus speech codes.

The picture continues to get worse when Riordan voices her fears over the fact that opening up a free speech zone at Emory might expose the students to (gasp!) occasionally troublesome speech:

Though she expressed enthusiasm for the project, Riordan also admitted to being concerned over the possibility of students putting up offensive material in the designated area, namely hate-motivated slogans or messages.

"Hate messages are always a concern," Riordan noted. "That’s why we’ve stuck with reservable space [in the past] so we know what student organization was [putting up material] and we could hold people accountable. If you have unreservable space and someone does it, you don’t know how to hold that person accountable."

[Emphasis added.]

Are Emory students really so feeble that if they see an anonymously written offensive message they will lose the ability to function? I’d say this is a pernicious justification from Emory’s administration to restrict speech on the campus and stifle spontaneous expression, but this mindset seems to have gone over so uncritically (at least with Emory’s student government) that the blame must be spread around a bit.

Another Emory student offers a cynical take on free speech at Emory, and it’s not terribly hard to see why the attitude toward free speech at the university would inspire cynicism:

College senior Cyrus Parlin disagrees with the free-expression endeavor, arguing that students are generally "apathetic when it comes to public expression."

"I feel like people are more interested in playing small ball than tackling any broader issues," Parlin said. "But I think that the few big displays that do get pulled off are often met with a certain amount of disdain … such as protestors against [Sodexo], which a not insignificant portion of the student body raised their noses at."

This apathy, he said, means that there is "no need" for such a space on campus as there have been very few controversial protests at Emory.

[Emphasis added.]

Well, that’s sad. Emory students are so apathetic that they wouldn’t even know what to do with free speech rights if you gave them to them! Might as well not bother with it. Still, at least Parlin gets it right when he says "the whole damn campus should be a free expression zone." That’s more than can be said for the administration and student government.

On a more hopeful note, one can scroll down to the comments for signs of life from the Emory student body. One commenter, identified as "Student," writes:

A free expression area? Maybe we should start by asking why free expression isn’t allowed on all of the campus. Why do we let Emory censor us and then act grateful when they make one small area where discourse can happen?

"Emory Student" writes as well:

A free expression zone implies that freedom of expression is not allowed on other parts of campus. Is freedom of expression allowed on this campus? Adam McCall, you wrap up this concept as if it is a victory for free speech. False. If you corral expression into a free speech zone you are shutting down the opportunity for meaningful dissent. This gives the university more justification to shut down dissent that it disapproves of. Aren’t you supposed to represent the interest of students? This move would benefit the interests of those trying to silence freedom of speech.

Whomever these students are, the Emory community should be listening to them, and not to its administration or student government. Emory’s student government and administration may see this matter as a step forward for student rights; instead, it is a sign of how many steps backwards they’ve taken.

Schools: Emory University