Is Emory going full Grinch? University tells students they can’t hang Christmas decorations.

December 22, 2021

While children and nostalgic adults across the nation enjoy the silly, whimsical story of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” festive college students at Emory University found themselves in trouble for their Christmas decorations under a policy that would make the Grinch snarl with a sneer. 

According to public reports, Emory charged the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity chapter on Dec. 3 with violating the university housing policy. Its transgression? Hanging a wreath and garlands on its front door and railings — a common tradition this time of year, but apparently banned by Emory Housing Policy 1.21.1, which allows students to “decorate for the holidays,” but requires “[s]orority lodges and fraternity / themed houses” to “request installation of exterior holiday decorations” before Nov. 1, and prohibits students from installing or removing any such “decorations” themselves. This policy applies only to displays that have “holiday” themes.

Emory’s housing policy is content-based because administrators must check to see whether students’ decorations are, in fact, holiday decorations, rather than other types of adornments, and then subjects those displays to different requirements.

Why push this strange rule in the peak Christmas season? Please don’t ask us why; no one quite knows the reason. It could be Emory’s shoes were two sizes too tight, or its knowledge of free speech just wasn’t quite right. But the most likely reason for ATO’s fall was that rule-writers’ hearts were two sizes too small. 

Despite this farcical attempt to stop Christmas from coming, Emory is not the most likely candidate for Grinch. Out of all the Whos in Whoville, Emory is among the best universities for expressive freedom, earning FIRE’s highest “green light” rating for its speech codes, and scoring fourth out of 154 institutions surveyed in FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Rankings, demonstrating a culture of and commitment to expressive rights.

So color us perplexed as to why this university, one of the finest for free speech in town, stared down at this fraternity with a sour, Grinchy frown. The policy at issue stops students from hanging a mistletoe wreath; a content-based ban Emory should know it’s beneath. 

In today’s letter to Emory, we reminded the university that every student in its academic community, both tall and small, has an equal right to free speech, student groups and all. When universities that promise free speech impose content-based restrictions on expression, the policy must be narrowly tailored to a compelling university interest. Emory’s housing policy is content-based because administrators must check to see whether students’ decorations are, in fact, holiday decorations, rather than other types of adornments, and then subjects those displays to different requirements. As we explain in our letter: 

If the display pertains to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Festivus, the display must be installed by the university. But if the same type of display does not pertain to a holiday—for example, exterior lights spelling out “happy birthday” to a fraternity member—then the policy does not apply, and students may install it themselves.

FIRE must ask this university to practice what its promises preach, and bring its housing policy in line with its pledge to free speech.

Even if the policy were content-neutral, it is not narrowly tailored to serve Emory’s interests. Concerns about student safety or property damage can justify a narrow restriction on decorations that pose fire hazards or cause property damage (these policies apply to residential housing with large numbers of students, after all), but a blanket ban on students installing all holiday decorations — no matter how slight or innocuous — burdens far more expression than necessary to satisfy these interests. Here, for example, there is no indication that the fraternity’s wreath and garlands presented any danger to students or damage to property more than, say, a birthday banner hung from the same roofline. Accordingly, the policy is overinclusive, sweeping up large swathes of expression protected by First Amendment standards, which Emory, as an institution that promises students robust expressive rights, is bound to uphold. 

Thankfully, the university refrained from imposing sanctions and will let the holiday decorations stand. So while we won’t beg Emory to carve the roast beast, or even bring food for the big Christmas feast, FIRE must ask this university to practice what its promises preach, and bring its housing policy in line with its pledge to free speech. To Emory and all universities, both tiny and large, we always welcome a conversation to help clarify your policies and ensure they align with free speech promises — our gift to you, free of charge.


Schools:  Emory University

Cases:  Emory University: Policy Banning Students from Hanging Holiday Decorations