Is Emory’s Student Government Ready to Take a Stand for Free Speech?

By on November 21, 2011

There’s some good news on the free speech front at Emory University, where (as I wrote here last week) a proposed "free expression zone" policy had all appearances of being woefully misguided and actually quite bad for free speech at Emory. The Emory Wheel expressed worry about the implications of such a zone as well. Now, Student Government Association (SGA) official Andrew Hull is hitting back against the notion that this new policy will restrict free speech.

Of the Wheel‘s editorial against the new policy, Hull writes:

The first point that the Wheel brings up is that a free expression zone implies limitations on other parts of the campus. It is natural and understandable for the term "free expression zone" to conjure pictures of some horrifying Orwellian invention, complete with concrete and metal fencing.

However, I reject such connotations. I do not see these as a place to "allow" free speech at the expense of other locations.

[...]

The President of SGA, Adam McCall, decided to explore the idea of making a place designed solely for free expression and a place specially designed to remove this potential conflict of liberties resulting from physical expression. Adam and I wanted to explore the creation of a place designed to maximize protest effectiveness – preserving a central location for protests – while minimizing unwanted impediments to the free movement of fellow students.

Now, does this in any way hinder people from protesting anywhere else? Absolutely not. The Wheel argues that all of Emory should be a free expression zone and that Emory should standardize its expression regulations. We agree, and that is why McCall is currently a member of the President’s Committee on Protest, Dissent, and Community.

Hull continues:

Let me repeat: the free expression zone in absolutely no way reduces freedom of speech and dissent elsewhere on Emory’s campus. McCall and I adamantly reject any temptation by the University or student body to construe this zone as implying such a consequence so directly opposed to what this University stands for, what we, the student body, stands for. [Emphasis added.]

This is more like it. I can see myself getting behind an extra place dedicated to free speech if I’m an Emory student. I am left with a couple of questions, though. First, if they are at such pains to make clear that the new "free expression zone" will do nothing to curb expression on other areas of the campus, what’s the point of having this policy at all? Such a strong stand in favor of free speech is surely welcome, though it renders the debate to one of semantics. Hull does, at least, acknowledge that the zone may prove unnecessary.

Second, my concerns that the SGA isn’t prepared to allow speech to be completely "free" at Emory still stand. McCall was quoted by the Wheel as saying of the new zone that "[y]ou 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." That’s a huge exception; indeed, the all-too-common policy of prohibiting "hate speech" negates many of our most cherished notions about the importance of free speech. I’d like to see the SGA clarify that it will now stand up for the freedom of all speech throughout the Emory campus, in line with Emory’s assertion that it "places a very high value on freedom of speech and on the opportunity for intellectual stimulation that can be a product of controversial content." (For more on the constitutionality of "hate speech" bans, see here.)

Still, Hull’s comments are encouraging, and his promise gives the Emory community much to work with. Emory students should hold him to his word and not allow Emory’s student government to fall short. Any policy that fails to protect the right to provoke or offend with one’s speech—or illiberally confines the locations where such speech can be exercised—should be sent back for revision.

Schools: Emory University