Buffeted by international ridicule over its handling of an incident involving chalked messages on campus, Emory University is getting squeezed between students who want speech free and others who want it to feel safe.
The messages scribbled on campus last week included a name and the number 2016, and would surely have gone unnoticed if the name hadn’t belonged to Donald Trump.
A protest ensued, with minority students saying they felt targeted. University President James Wagner reacted with an email that pledged to provide a “safe environment.” And Facebook and other social media sites took it from there, as Emory became a punchline for news outlets across the country, and even outside of it.
“Students freak out because someone chalked Trump slogans on campus,” blared a headline in the Daily Mail website in Britain. “Emory university president says students are scared and ‘in pain.’”
Wagner responded with another message Friday, this one scribbled in chalk, with a camera over his shoulder: “Emory Stands for Free Expression!” he wrote, in a video published on YouTube.
That was a step forward for some, but then a campus dean, Ajay Nair, did what some saw as a step back: he published a column online that said free speech about controversial subjects was important for a college but that the conversations “must take place in a safe environment that is inclusive and guided by mutual respect and civility.”
Critics focus on this question: who gets to decide what’s “safe?”
“Safe environment means ideological conformity,” said Matthew Walker, an Emory graduate who, because of the chalking affair, co-founded a group on Facebook called the Concerned Emory Alumni Association.
Emory has a Freedom of Expression Committee that addresses such issues, and Walker and his supporters find it all so stifling. “Orwellian,” he called it. There’s even a Respect for Open Expression Policy. But Emory is in the United States and the United States already has a policy, called the First Amendment, noted Walker, a history major who graduated in 2007 and is now an attorney in Houston. Freedom of speech “should not be a close call at all in America,” he said.
Other students say the defenders of free speech are missing the nuance of the situation. Some non-white students saw an insult in the chalked messages.
Pranati Kohli, 19, came to Emory from India to study political science and math. She wasn’t among the 50 or so protesters at the administration building last week, but she knows students who were and sympathizes with them to some extent.
First off, the messages were scrawled after Georgia’s presidential primary, so they didn’t seem intended as purely political. And there were reports, if not documentary evidence, that “TRUMP 2016” wasn’t the only message. There were also supposedly these words: “Build a wall.” Of course, that’s a reference to Trump’s widely mocked campaign promise to keep Mexicans from crossing the border. Plus, it didn’t go unnoticed that the incident occurred near a center that houses associations for Latino and black students, among others.
“I do think it was irresponsible and I don’t think it was necessary,” said Kohli. She added that the injury maybe wasn’t as extreme as some students claimed. “Words like ‘trauma’ and ‘assault’ probably weren’t appropriate to use for such a situation,” she said.
In an era when a spark of protest can result in the ouster of both a campus president and a university system president, as happened in Missouri last year, university leaders are swatting at anything that looks like fire. So what was Wagner’s message with his chalking? An Emory spokeswoman said the university would have no comment.
Meanwhile, if there was any assault, it was on the university’s reputation. An online search of “Emory” and “chalk” surfaces a trove of news articles and belittling opinion pieces.
Emory senior Josh Niemtzow said he thinks Wagner has angered both sides by trying to address all concerns, and he thinks the leader has done the best he can given the situation.
“He wanted to restore Emory’s reputation,” said Niemtzow, 22, a political science major. “It’s been a whole mess on campus. … I think people are upset this blew up and people just want to move on.”
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