Last chance for Emerson College to prove it is not ‘kinda sus’

November 10, 2021

On Nov. 3, Emerson College’s Conduct Board found a student organization violated college policy when it handed out stickers that read “China Kinda Sus,” a slang term for acting suspiciously. But right now, the only thing that’s “kinda sus” on campus is Emerson’s insistence on punishing a student organization for protected expression.  

After initially suspending the conservative student organization Turning Point USA for distributing the stickers, Emerson’s Conduct Board found the group responsible for violating the school’s “Bias Related Behavior” policy. In its disciplinary findings, Emerson acknowledged TPUSA “did not intend to target anyone other than China’s government.” But the school still somehow found the group responsible for creating “a hostile, intimidating or offensive working, living or learning environment.”

That’s because, according to Emerson College, the “pervasive environment of anti-Asian discrimination” means even criticism of China’s government — which the college acknowledges was not intended as discriminatory — is subject to censorship.

Emerson should empower students to respond to speech they find offensive and take action against those who engage in discriminatory conduct — not censor students.

While the group is no longer suspended, it received a “formal warning” about the incident, which states that additional behavior that violates Emerson’s Community Standards will likely result in additional discipline. That “Formal Warning” means the group — and anyone else — is not allowed to distribute the stickers, and raises the question of what other criticism of China’s government will subject a student or faculty member to sanctions.

This is unacceptable. Today, FIRE wrote a second letter to Emerson calling on the university to reverse its decision, lift the disciplinary charges, and clear the organization’s record. As we wrote in our letter

Deeming the distribution of a sticker critical of a foreign government to be “discriminatory conduct on the basis of national origin” on these grounds is inconsistent with Emerson’s erstwhile commitments to its students’ freedom of expression. At core, Emerson concludes that its campus is subject to “pervasive” anti-Asian discrimination and that the burden of redressing this discrimination falls on the shoulder of a student group Emerson concedes did not (and did not intend to) engage in discriminatory conduct. The result is that Emerson students—and presumably faculty—cannot criticize China’s government.

TPUSA has appealed the decision to try to clear its name of any wrongdoing on campus. This is more than just a warning — it is a threat to TPUSA, and others at Emerson, to avoid speech that might offend others who identify with or support a foreign state government, lest the speaker earn the ire of Emerson’s administration.

As FIRE has established repeatedly, and even Emerson acknowledges, the text on the stickers is a direct reference to practices of the Chinese Communist Party, not Chinese people generally. Emerson cited an increase in anti-Asian bias over the course of the last year as further support for its decision, and that increase is certainly disturbing — but Emerson’s obligations to address hostile environment harassment do not require or authorize it to censor isolated speech by students that the college acknowledges did not intend to engage in harassing conduct. 

Emerson should empower students to respond to speech they find offensive and take action against those who engage in discriminatory conduct — not censor students.

That rationale would not be limited to criticism of China, or even this group’s criticism. For example, there has also been an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, particularly after escalating violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in May. Would Emerson punish a student Palestinian advocacy group for distributing flyers critical of the Israeli government, or supportive of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement? If an Israeli or Jewish student came forward to report feelings of a hostile environment on campus because of pro-Palestinian groups, would Emerson respond by punishing the pro-Palestinian groups? 

It is time for the college to stop digging itself a deeper hole and to commit that it will live up to its lofty promises of free expression on campus.

Likewise, if a student or faculty member engaged in some other criticism of China’s government, they risk similar (or worse) sanctions if it angers other students. Student discomfort with criticism of China will not be — and at Emerson has not been — limited to irreverent stickers.

The precedent established here is unsustainable, and will have a chilling effect on student and faculty speech. Emerson already beclowned itself when it hid tweets critical of the Chinese government from general view on Twitter. It is time for the college to stop digging itself a deeper hole and to commit that it will live up to its lofty promises of free expression on campus. Until it does so, FIRE will keep fighting to hold Emerson accountable.


Schools:  Emerson College

Cases:  Emerson College: Conservative Student Group Investigated for Distributing “China Kinda Sus” Stickers