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Emerson still ‘kinda sus’ on free speech — so we’ve alerted their accreditor

Emerson College student Sam Neves standing in front of a billboard truck with a FIRE ad that says "Emerson Kinda Sus"

Emerson College student Sam Neves stands in front of a mobile billboard that criss-crossed Boston earlier this year to call out Emerson’s attempts to censor and squelch free expression on campus. Neves is president of Emerson’s Turning Point USA chapter that was punished for passing out stickers featuring a hammer and sickle with the caption “CHINA KINDA SUS” — slang for “suspicious.”

In the 15 months of continued and wide-ranging censorship at Emerson College, FIRE has written six letters, covered the controversy eight times here on Newsdesk, created a website, and launched a campaign on the streets of Boston complete with a roving billboard truck notifying students that Emerson’s free speech promises are “kinda sus.” 

Now, we’re going even bigger by filing a complaint this week with its academic accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education, shining a spotlight on Emerson’s poor treatment of the student chapter of Turning Point USA and the general sorry state of student expression on the college’s Boston campus. The complaint marks the latest in a long line of attempts by FIRE to get Emerson to live up to the free expression promises it makes to students. 

Emerson has never responded directly to us, in any manner or forum, to defend its actions or to contest our claims. 

Our complaint alleges Emerson is out of compliance with the NECHE’s Standard for Accreditation, which requires accredited institutions to be “committed to the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge,” and to assure “faculty and students the freedom to teach and study, to examine all pertinent data, to question assumptions, and to be guided by the evidence of scholarly research.”

As we wrote in our complaint

The Commission’s Standard 9.3 is one of the strongest protections for student and faculty expression at private institutions in the United States. For accreditation to mean something, institutions must take these requirements seriously and clear departures from these standards must be enforced. Emerson’s refusal to bring its conduct in line with Standard 9.3 despite repeated efforts at resolution merits the Commission’s attention in the same way that other accrediting bodies have taken action against institutions for departing from a commitment to freedom of expression.

We cited precedent set by other accreditors who have taken action against institutions for failing to live up to accreditation standards. One such accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, placed Southwest Baptist University on probation for failing to comply with, among other things, a requirement to be “committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.” Another, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, opened an investigation into Mount St. Mary’s University in 2016 for the school’s apparent breach of several of the commission’s standards, including standards regarding leadership and governance, integrity, student admissions and retention, and faculty.

Emerson College's Turning Point USA chapter was suspended for passing out these stickers.

Emerson College investigates, suspends conservative student group for stickers criticizing China’s government

Press Release

We’re hoping to prompt a similar response here. Emerson’s mistreatment of TPUSA dates back more than a year. In September 2021, the school suspended and investigated the student group for distributing “China Kinda Sus” stickers on campus, eventually placing a “Formal Warning” on the group’s record — despite Emerson acknowledging there was no evidence the group intended to target anyone for criticism other than China’s government. This caused a snowball effect whereby the college’s administration subsequently derecognized the group for being unable to obtain a new faculty advisor after their previous one stepped away in the wake of the college’s accusation that the group promoted “anti-Asian bigotry.” 

Emerson didn’t stop there. In previously unpublicized incidents, an administrator, citing two “civility” policies, denied a TPUSA student member’s attempt to post flyers on campus responding to a student newspaper op-ed critical of TPUSA. Administrators also stopped the group during the past two months from promoting two documentary screenings: One, a documentary from CBS News about free speech on college campuses, detailed a TPUSA student member’s experience at Emerson.  The other was commentator Matt Walsh’s “What Is A Woman?” documentary. Though the events eventually proceeded, the group was unable to promote them. 

Now, FIRE is turning to NECHE to hold Emerson accountable. In June, we filed a similar complaint with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education concerning Saint Vincent College’s decision to have its president and cabinet review all college-sponsored speakers invited to campus. Filing accreditor complaints is a measure we take very rarely, but we take this step here after exhausting other forms of both public and private advocacy in our lengthy uphill battle to get Emerson to respect free expression. Disturbingly, in all this time, Emerson has never responded directly to us, in any manner or forum, to defend its actions or to contest our claims. 

However, in the course of the school’s ongoing presidential search, it has publicly stated any new president must appreciate “diverse ideas and the free expression of them.” We certainly hope the new president will, or the school may end up a repeat offender on our list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech.

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