(FILE/ Courtesy Alex Reibman.) Chalk drawing on Emory's campus in March 2016.

(FILE/Alex Reibman.) Chalk drawing on Emory's campus in March 2016.

Emory Committee Releases Formal Statement on ‘Chalkening’ Controversy, Political Expression

By May 11, 2016

The Emory University Senate’s Standing Committee for Open Expression has seen the writing on the wall. Or, more specifically, on the sidewalk.

The university-affiliated committee tasked with interpreting Emory’s Open Expression Policy released a comprehensive 12-page statement this week urging increased free speech protections at Emory in the wake of this semester’s controversy over pro-Donald Trump chalk messages and several other incidents that ignited debate over the bounds of political speech. The group, composed of students, faculty, administrators and staff, formally voted on the statement in late April.

Emory University School of Law professor and committee member Alexander “Sasha” Volokh told FIRE the committee’s decision to go on-record is in line with the group’s purpose: “to be open-expression watchdogs.”

“We just thought it would be a good idea because it was timely, and a good opportunity to educate people on the content of our Open Expression Policy,” Volokh said.

That includes a point-by-point analysis of each of the hotly-debated March incidents, including a “Mein Trumpf” poster that compared Trump to Adolf Hitler, and the defacement or destruction of several signs, including pro-Bernie Sanders posters and an anti-Israel sign. The group details which incidents amount to protected political expression (the chalkings and posters) and which ones violate school policy by preventing the free expression of others (the defacement and destruction of signage).

The opinion notably commends Emory for not punishing students for their controversial political opinions, but stresses that confusion over the policy—specifically, whether Emory would investigate the chalkings— was unacceptable. Thus:

This Committee recommends that the University develop a chalking policy that is reasonable, neutral as to content, clear as to when Emory staff may remove messages, uniform to the extent feasible, and easily accessible online to all members of the Emory Community.

FIRE reported on the initial headline-making pro-Trump chalkings, which roiled campus over claims they constituted threats, including Emory President James Wagner’s troubling initial stance that the chalkings would be investigated after students complained they wanted to “feel comfortable and safe” on campus. The following week, FIRE obtained encouraging, exclusive video of President Wagner chalking a pro free-speech message on campus.

UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh (Professor Sasha Volokh’s brother) commented on the importance of the opinion yesterday on his The Volokh Conspiracy, his blog for The Washington Post.

“The opinion has no formal precedential value, as I understand it,” Volokh wrote, “but I suspect that in practice it will be quite influential.”

Emory student Alex Reibman, president of Emory’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter and an outspoken advocate of clearer campus policies protecting speech, said it’s a move in the right direction “in defining and explaining Emory’s commitments to free speech.”

“Policies can get fuzzy sometimes without proper examples or explanations,” Reibman said, “I think Emory’s Committee for Open Expression did a great job explaining the University’s protections of free speech.”

In its role as official free speech watchdog, Emory’s Standing Committee for Open Expression provides a great example of the benefits of an independent campus body that specifically monitors and responds to free speech threats on campus.

We hope more schools will follow Emory’s lead.

Schools: Emory University