Emory committee finds that pro-Trump messages are protected speechMain Quad on Emory University's primary Druid Hills Campus, including the Michael C. Carlos Museum on the right. Photo obtained via Wikimedia Commons
Emory University students who were offended by pro-Trump messages written in chalk around campus can’t force the university to censor that speech because it offends them, a university committee has found.
The university’s Committee for Open Expression – a group of faculty, staff and students – issued a lengthy report on the matter that affirmed the chalkings are protected free speech under university policy. In March, Emory students attracted national attention, and a healthy dose of mockery, for a protest that occurred after the pro-Trump messages were discovered.
The Emory Wheel, the student newspaper, reported about 40 students protested outside an administration building on March 21 outside the administration building.
One student reportedly said, “‘I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe [here]. 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.’”
Sophomore Jonathan Peraza reportedly led a chant and called out, “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!”
The student’s pain over the message does not trump Donald Trump supporters’ rights of free speech, the committee found.
“Certainly, if the content of the chalkings threatened violence, force, or injury to persons or property, they would violate the Open Expression Policy as well as other policies, including state criminal law,” the report says. “Such acts would also reasonably evoke feelings of fear—though the acts are prohibited without reference to whether anyone subjectively feels fear; and likewise, a subjective feeling of fear is insufficient, by itself, to bring an act within a prohibition in the Policy. The knowledge that someone supports Donald Trump and is willing to express his feelings in chalk is not a threat, and is not a reasonable cause for fear in this context.”
Similarly, posters portraying Donald Trump as Hitler or a member of the Ku Klux Klan are also protected speech, the committee found. The committee also examined whether one of the pro-Trump messages – “Build the Wall” – constitute a threat to students who are immigrants. That is protected speech as well, the committee determined.
“One can oppose immigration on grounds unrelated to bias against any group, and thus we cannot call the statement ‘Build the Wall’ a bias incident without knowing the speaker’s subjective intent,” the report says.
Certain behaviors, like defacing the political speech of others, are not protected, the committee ruled. There were several instances of this. Someone drew a Hitler mustache on a Donald Trump poster. Another unknown person cut up a poster supporting Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
“Finally, in response to a Hillel display supportive of Israel at some reserved tables in the DUC Commons, someone else reserved a nearby table and placed a sign on it reading ‘#Propaganda’. Another person covered that sign with an Israeli flag,” the report says.
These acts violate university policy.
“If the vandals were Emory Community members, their actions violated several sections of the Open Expression Policy and should be treated seriously,” the report says.
The report concluded by recommending that the university develop a chalking policy that is reasonable and “neutral to content.”
Here is the committee’s full report: