As an alumnus of Emory University, I am extremely upset by the actions I’ve seen students take over the past several weeks in response to pro-Donald Trump chalking and hashtags written on campus. Thankfully, however, students and alumni are starting to fight back against this perceived assault on free speech.
For those unaware of the controversy, it began when a yet-unidentified group of people wrote “Trump 2016” and other pro-Trump phrases across the campus’s sidewalks in chalk. The Emory Wheel (to which I formerly contributed as an Emory student) reported that, after the chalkings, a group of over 40 students protested at the school’s administration building, with grievances that largely focused on the content of the chalking itself. Though some of the chalk writings violated university chalking policies, the protesters were more concerned by the content of the speech than the rules violations themselves. Protesters met with University President James Wagner, demanding that the administration take action to denounce the chalking and denounce Donald Trump’s ideology.
“I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe [here],” one student said. “But this man is being supported by students on our campus and our administration shows that they, by their silence, support it as well … I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school,” she added.
“What are we feeling?” Peraza asked those assembled. Responses of “frustration” and “fear” came from around the room, but individual students soon began to offer more detailed, personal reactions to feelings of racial tension that Trump and his ideology bring to the fore.
“How can you not [disavow Trump] when Trump’s platform and his values undermine Emory’s values that I believe are diversity and inclusivity when they are obviously not [something that Trump supports]” one student said tearfully. “Banning Muslims? How is that something Emory supports?” asked yet another.
Despite the fact that these students seemed to have never learned that it’s possible for people to permit free speech without agreeing with the content of that speech, they demanded that Emory’s administration take action. President Wagner and other administrators agreed the next day: Wagner released a public statement outlining steps the university would take in response, and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair penned a separate article for Inside Higher Ed justifying the decision.
Emory has had its own fair share of controversies surrounding free speech and ideological inclusion on campus, ranging from David Horowitz’s 2007 speech being shut down by a mix of on-campus and off-campus protesters, to 2013’s removal of the campus Chick-fil-A by a student-led “food advisory committee.” Wagner himself–whom I have met and spoken with on several occasions, and personally find to be an honorable man–has also had to walk on eggshells in recent years as a result of statements he made about the Three-Fifths Compromise in 2013.
History aside, the news of the campus protest made Emory a laughingstock. Comedians like Bill Maher and Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore mocked the thin skins of the student protesters on TV. A trolling-effort-turned-counter-protest, called “#TheChalkening,” was started by the online college media group Old Row in order to chalk pro-Trump statements on college campus sidewalks nationwide.
However, Emory students and alums have had enough of seeing their institution being disgraced in this way. And they’ve started fighting back.
Emory alumni Ed Thayer (’05C) and Matt Walker (’07C) organized a large group of fellow alumni who opposed these chilling developments. In an open letter to the administration, Thayer said, in part, the following:
No longer does Emory University serve as a beacon of intellectual diversity attracting some of the best and brightest young adults from across the world, much as it attracted us. Instead, Emory has become just another school in the well-documented pattern of universities that have surrendered to the demands of a vocal few that emotional comfort, ideological conformity and yes, “safe environments” trump fundamental notions of free speech. Critical thinking and exposure to other opinions are unwanted. But this does not have to be how the story ends. It is vitally important that we respond to this trend by reaffirming our foundational notions of freedom. Unfortunately, President Wagner and Emory University have thus far failed to rise to the challenge.
Students have also started fighting back. Emory’s chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty started a petition on Change.org demanding that the university reinforce its commitments to free speech and academic inquiry. They also hosted two counter-protest events, one where students were encouraged to chalk messages in support of free speech, and a second where YAL members chalked messages regarding all the current Presidential candidates across campus.
The Emory Wheel has also joined in the fight, albeit cautiously. A group of thirty international students and first-generation immigrants signed on to a Op-Ed letter defending free expression. The Editorial Board of the Wheel posted its own response that, at least nominally, pushed back on the protesters’ demands and cautioned that new rules governing expession on campus have the potential to be abused and suppress free speech. The Editor in Chief of the Wheel, Zak Hudak, also wrote his own piece, arguing that
a constructive conversation over free speech at Emory can exist only with a total allowance of speech — and with a concerted effort to remain sensitive and respectful toward the opposition and its views. Protesters, protest. Chalkers, chalk. Let us not forget each side of an argument is reliant on its opposition for progress.
If we shut down the opposition, we lose our purpose as a university. We lose the courage to inquire, and we lose the ability to engage with the contention that we will encounter outside of the Emory community.
Some of these actions have prompted a response. At the Young Americans for Liberty event, President Wagner attended and wrote “Emory stands for Free Expression!” on a campus sidewalk.
Though we have yet to see if Emory will do more to restore its own honor and more substantially defend free speech, the efforts of these students and alumni should give everyone hope for the future.