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Good News for Free Speech at Emory University

By March 22, 2016

Last week, The Volokh Conspiracy reported that the Emory University Senate Standing Committee for Open Expression released an opinion strongly supporting free speech on campus. The opinion responds to two separate acts of vandalism within 48 hours last February targeting a wall display posted by Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP). The vandals apparently disagreed with the political messages about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict displayed on the wall and aimed to suppress ESJP’s speech.

The committee’s opinion explains that the vandalism of ESJP’s display violates Emory’s Open Expression Policy. Additionally, the committee concludes the only way the wall display would not be protected speech under the Open Expression Policy would be if it constituted harassment. The wall display did not fit the definition of harassment because expression “directed at the world at large, as the displays in this case, cannot be harassing as understood in Georgia law or in the Policy.”

Professor Eugene Volokh of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law—a noted First Amendment expert—praised the opinion. (As Volokh notes, his brother Sasha is a professor at Emory Law School and a member of the committee.) Volokh observed:

The opinion, of course, is constrained by the terms of the policy, but I think it faithfully interprets the policy as offering broad protection for student speech. The opinion has no formal precedential value, as I understand it, but I suspect that in practice it will be quite influential.

That’s not the only welcome development at Emory.

Last fall, a group of students identifying themselves as the Black Students of Emory University made thirteen demands of Emory administrators, “demand[ing] an active change in University policy directed towards Black students.” Demand 11 asked Emory to request that Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that only permits posts by people in a particular geographic area, install a “geofence” around the area within zip code 30322 so that Emory students could not use the app on campus. The students argued that the prohibition was necessary “in order to protect our students from subjection to intolerable and psychologically detrimental material.”

Emory subsequently convened a “Racial Justice Retreat,” inviting students, faculty, staff, and administrators to discuss the students’ demands. From this, working groups formed for each of the thirteen demands. Last month, the working groups presented their initial recommendations, which are to be finalized by early April.

The working group for the Yik Yak demand noted that there were two possible solutions that would meet the demand: either Yik Yak could install a geofence (which it has never done for a college, despite requests to do so) or Emory could ban Yik Yak from communicating over its campus network. According to a report from the student newspaper The Emory Wheel, the working group concluded that such bans were both technologically futile—a “purely a symbolic step”—and “inappropriate”:

Overall, the working group found that there is no technological solution and the proposed solution is purely symbolic. Also, they found that this conversation is a red herring; the fundamental problem is that “black students do not believe the institution provides them the same level of support when they are under attack,” the recommendations state.

“This is not about Yik Yak,” the recommendation document states. “This about the institution’s relationship with a segment of its student population.”

The working group’s recommendation that Emory not seek to ban Yik Yak is a sound conclusion, reached through reason and discussion with students. As FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh pointed out last month, bans on apps that permit anonymous speech are both infeasible and risk closing channels of dialogue that can be useful to students.

While the working groups’ recommendations have yet to be finalized, there is hope that the Yik Yak working group will, like the Standing Committee for Open Expression, reach a conclusion that embraces a speech-protective approach.

Schools: Emory University