The concluding part of a trilogy is almost always the worst — just ask Star Wars, the Matrix, or Michael Corleone. Emerson College appears determined to live down to expectations as the college looks to outdo itself, punishing the campus chapter of Turning Point USA a third time for its protected speech, this time by refusing to provide the group with an advisor — resulting in loss of the group’s official recognition.
The controversy arose after the group distributed stickers reading “China Kinda Sus” on campus — stickers that the administration, after initially suspending the group, later conceded were intended to criticize China’s government, not its people. Not that it would matter, as either criticism would still be protected under Emerson’s firm promises to protect freedom of expression, which make no exception for speech others view as hateful. But the group’s intent didn’t stop the administration from jumping to publicly denounce TPUSA in September for “anti-Asian bigotry and hate,” nor did it stop the administration from then placing a “Formal Warning” on the group’s record, asserting that it had to do so because of the “pervasive environment of anti-Asian discrimination” — by other people.
It’d be a real shame if all of these public condemnations had an impact on the reputation of the group, thus chilling faculty or staff from being willing to work with them, huh?
FIRE is writing to the school once again giving it an opportunity to remedy its blatant censorship of TPUSA.
Unsurprisingly, that is just what happened. Emerson has now removed the group’s recognition as an official student organization, purportedly because the group cannot find a full-time faculty member to serve as an advisor after their previous advisor stepped away in the wake of the stickers controversy. This derecognition comes despite the group reaching out to more than 50 full-time faculty members and getting no interest in advising it. Multiple part-time faculty members have expressed interest — but they are not eligible to be advisors under Emerson’s policies.
Unrecognized groups do not have “access to funds or ability to reserve space,” cannot use Emerson’s image or likeness, and are not eligible for Emerson Recognition and Achievement awards.
What’s so ‘Sus’ about Emerson?
To sum up: Emerson’s administration publicly denounced the group, issued the group a formal warning for criticizing China’s government, and is now revoking the group’s recognition because no faculty members or staff want to be involved with it.
Some of the reluctance doubtlessly stems from faculty members’ personal objections to the group or its protected speech, including the stickers. That’s consistent with Emerson’s recognition of expressive freedom, as individual faculty members possess their own expressive freedom to decline to associate with a group. But Emerson cannot condition a student group’s recognition on the subjective approval of any number of faculty. And that’s pointedly so where the administration has placed its thumbs on the scales, either through denouncing the group — after all, if unintentionally violating Emerson’s policies gets the group in trouble, why would a faculty member risk voluntarily sticking their neck out and becoming embroiled in further sanctions from the college — or through refusing to assign a staff member to serve as an advisor.
A student group at @EmersonCollege was suspended and is under investigation for handing out these stickers critical of the Chinese government.
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) October 5, 2021
FIRE previously wrote to Emerson on Jan. 28 asking the school to take measures to avoid derecognizing TPUSA. We explained that, even though the faculty advisor provision appears to be content- and viewpoint-neutral, it is actually now penalizing TPUSA for its viewpoint:
TPUSA’s student leadership has attempted in good faith to find another faculty advisor, and has drawn interest from part-time or affiliated faculty, but it has been unsuccessful in attracting an advisor among full-time faculty, and now faces derecognition. To be sure, faculty members, engaging in their own rights to freedom of association, have a cognizable associative right to decline to form a relationship with TPUSA because of disagreement with the group’s views. But if TPUSA is derecognized, its status as a registered student organization in good standing would improperly change as a direct result of community members’ opposition to its viewpoint.
A rule requiring that student organizations engage a faculty advisor is content- and viewpoint-neutral on its face, and would not normally prompt questions of free expression. But in this circumstance, given TPUSA’s political viewpoint and the heightened controversy surrounding the group, the application of the policy creates a clear burden flowing from opposition to the group’s viewpoint.
To make matters worse on Emerson’s part, there are clear ways that Emerson can maintain TPUSA’s recognition.
We suggested that the college choose from a number of viable solutions for this situation: It could recognize that TPUSA has unsuccessfully tried, in good faith, to find a faculty advisor and instead assign a college staff member to the group. Or it could waive the full-time requirement and allow the group to operate with one of the willing part-time faculty members, with the understanding that the group will have to replace its advisor more often than other groups. But Emerson’s administration is choosing no remedy and — once again — won’t even bother to explain why it believes its censorious course of conduct is appropriate for an institution that says freedom of expression and of association “is not only a right but a community responsibility.” Emerson’s answer to these criticisms is silence because it has nothing else to offer.
Emerson’s broken free speech promises
Now, FIRE is writing to the school once again giving it an opportunity to remedy its blatant censorship of TPUSA. As we told Emerson president William Gilligan:
Emerson’s treatment of TPUSA is deeply shameful for an institution of higher education that claims to uphold free expression. Your administration’s own statements about the group have chilled faculty and staff who may otherwise have been interested in advising the organization, even if they do not support its views. This callous indifference to the rights of TPUSA’s members renders Emerson’s promises of freedom of expression fleeting at best, leaving a stain on a school whose motto pledges to honor “Expression Necessary to Evolution.”
FIRE has publicized the situation on several occasions, including writing multiple articles about the college’s bad actions, criticizing Emerson on social media, and even parking a truck right across the street from campus. We will not give up until Emerson shows it takes its commitments of free expression seriously by allowing TPUSA to continue to function as a recognized student organization and stops its targeting of protected student speech.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).