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So About Free Speech at Emory...

Just yesterday, we reported that the Emory University Senate Standing Committee for Open Expression had issued a statement strongly supporting free speech on campus. But just over the past 24 hours comes news of Emory’s apparent implosion over the appearance of “Trump 2016” chalkings on campus. Most notable, from FIRE’s perspective, is this suggestion from Emory President James Wagner:

The University will review footage “up by the hospital [from] security cameras” to identify those who made the chalkings, Wagner told the protesters. He also added that if they’re students, they will go through the conduct violation process….

While Emory does place some content-neutral restrictions on chalking which the chalkers here may have violated, the remedy for violations is “a clean up fee,” not disciplinary action. This strongly suggests that Wagner’s response has more to do with the content of the expression—which sparked protests by Emory students who complained it made them feel unsafe—than with any potential noncompliance with Emory’s chalking policy.

As Gawker’s Sam Biddle wrote in an epic takedown that I wish I had written myself, Wagner’s reaction suggests that Emory’s plan is to “reject [Trump’s] fascism by acting itself like some sort of fascist police apparatus.”

Let’s leave aside a discussion of the fact that college students apparently cannot handle seeing the name of a presidential candidate—even one viewed by many as loathsome and bigoted—chalked on campus. Others (including Biddle) have ably covered this ground, and besides, this seems to be the reality in which we now operate. The only question is, how can we ensure that the rights to free speech and expression on campus survive in this climate?

The answer is, first and foremost, that college administrators need to be strong and consistent in their defense of free speech. I gave a lecture yesterday to a class of graduate students in student conduct administration, and I told them that if they could take only one thing away from our discussion, this would be it. If administrators signal (as Wagner has by trying to appease those who claim they cannot handle political expression on campus) a willingness to allow the subjective reaction of others to dictate the parameters of free speech on campus, the drumbeat for censorship will never stop. And if they are inconsistent in their defense of free speech—that is, if they give in when the pressure is really intense, but cite the importance of free speech under other circumstances where the stakes feel lower—they will be establishing an unconscionable double standard for which they will someday be called to account.

Instead, administrators must stand on principle every time. It will be hard, and they will be criticized for it. (Believe me, after ten years at a free speech organization, I know!) But if administrators defend free speech each and every time, people will start to understand. I know this, too. And maybe then administrators will be able to help roll back the tide of censorship that has characterized the university campus for too long now.

Thankfully, many people both within and outside of Emory seem to understand the serious threat to free speech that exists when speech—most especially speech on political and social issues—is suppressed. Zak Hudak, the editor of the student newspaper The Emory Wheel, wrote today that while he understands why protesters were upset about the Trump chalkings,

It is nonetheless necessary to ask those protesters what would happen should the tables be turned. Suppose we had a different administration. Suppose it was ruled that protests, such as the one on Tuesday, made Trump supporters feel threatened on campus. Freedom of speech works both ways, and its hindrance affects both sides. It is not the role of an institution that is devoted to the critical education of its students to tell those students which opinions they are allowed to have.

And even President Wagner seems to be striking a slightly less strident tone than yesterday, noting that the investigation into the chalkers would be about “whether the person or people responsible for the chalking were in compliance with Emory’s policy.” (We assume, therefore, that nothing more than a clean-up fee will be assessed if the chalkers turn out to be students. We will be watching closely to make sure.)

Still, though, the university’s response to this incident leaves us wondering about the state of free and open discourse on campus. In its report, the Standing Committee for Open Expression explicitly stated, “While Emory affirms the values of diversity, inclusion and community, these values may not be used to justify the suppression of speech based on its expressive content.” (Emphasis added.) President Wagner, as well as anyone calling for disciplinary action against the chalkers, would do well to remember this statement, and make sure that the university’s commitment to free speech is more than just lip service.

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