Trump University

Image courtesy of Emory University

Chalk Messages and
Free Speech on Campus

| published April 10, 2016 |

By Thursday Review editors

Free speech should not be a complicated thing. Indeed, pain and suffering can come in many forms, but it should not come from happening to walk past—or see, for that matter—words scrawled in chalk on a sidewalk or retaining wall. And that is especially true on a major college campus.

Still, the remarkable news that students at Emory University in Atlanta were “distressed,” “hurt” and “frightened”—all these terms were used by students in official complaints to administration officials—by someone’s handwritten message in favor of Donald Trump raises eyebrows among those who once believed that American universities and colleges were institutions of openness, ideas and free expression.

The pro-Trump messages were apparently scrawled in chalk here and there in several campus locations—on walls, retaining walls, sidewalks. The messages read only “Trump 2016.” Students were offended by such messages, and the complaints began quickly to roll into the offices of the university, where nothing less than a campus-wide safety campaign began in earnest within hours. Top school officials convened meetings with students and student leaders to talk about promoting a new “safe environment” and broaden understandings of inclusion for all students.

Some students complained that the handwritten messages caused “distress,” while others said the low-tech chalk ads left them “in pain.” Jim Wagner, president of Emory University, weighed-in on the controversy, assuring “injured” students that he would reboot the school’s commitment to keeping them safe and unmolested by such trauma.

A large contingent of students protested the messages. When university officials were slow to react—hours had apparently passed after the first messages were seen on campus—more protesters showed up with signs that read “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!” Wagner met with students, many of whom explained that they felt bullied by the messages, with some even expressing deep anxiety. Others complained that since the messages appeared to them as veiled threats.

“I legitimately feared for my life,” one student told administrators and reporters, “I thought we were having a KKK rally on campus.”

Another told reporters and the campus newspaper that the fact that the pro-Trump message might have come from fellow students made it even more disturbing.

“I’m supposed to feel comfortable and safe, but this man, Trump, is being supported by students on this campus, and our administration shows by their silence they support it as well,” the student said. “I don’t deserve to feel afraid at my school.”

One student, a senior, took to social media to moralize to his campus peers, “...think about how your language can be oppressive toward other people.”

Within days, Emory’s student body had become the brunt of a thousand jokes, and their “pain” at seeing Trump’s name in chalk (yes, chalk, which means a few good north Georgia spring rains and those political tomes will be washed away) had become fodder for late night comedians—even those who otherwise might be inclined to spend their hour on air skewering Trump instead. Bill Maher lambasted the “liberal bubble” in which most American students apparently live.

“Somebody writes pro-Trump messages on the sidewalk in chalk,” Maher said, “and, I swear to God, the kids went apeshit.” Maher believes that the kids not only have a narrow, delusional understanding of democracy, but that they are largely disconnected from reality.

“I so badly want to dropkick these kids into a place where there is actual ‘pain and suffering.’ What happened in this country?”

All told, university officials and student protesters say that about 90 pro-Trump messages were found in various places in and around the sprawling Emory University campus, located in the leafy, shady suburbs just northeast of central Atlanta. Here, in a rarified space meant for the deep exploration of ideas and the relentless pursuit of knowledge, hundreds of students came unglued—some figuratively, many literally—by the harsh specter that some of their student colleagues might be inclined to vote (or think!) differently than the larger campus herd.

Adding to the strange display of misery and suffering: the apparently deep-seeded notion that the university’s administration should have protected or shielded students from beliefs which they find offensive—or merely different—and that by allowing those scrawled messages to go unchallenged, the university was by default abetting racism, oppression and the promotion of fear.

As if to play into the pathology of coddling, the university—far from revamping and rebooting its commitments to higher education and the expansion of knowledge through free ideas and free thought—assured restless, fearful students that it would aggressively review all security footage and interview hundreds of possible witnesses to the vandalism. Why? Heaven forbid students should feel pain and suffering on this scale again.

Instead of reevaluating how its professors and instructors teach greater tolerance and openness to words and ideas, the university will construct a more robust layer of bubble wrap.

The incident was presciently reviewed in an article in the September edition of The Atlantic magazine, in which authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Kulianoff expressed concern for what has become a rapidly solidifying trend on campuses across the country, from Yale and Harvard, to public institutions, such as Ohio State and the University of Missouri (where a professor expressed such outrage at a student journalist who was merely filming an event that she shouted for student “muscle” to have him removed by force).

“Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students,” Haidt and Kulianoff wrote. “They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship.”

The authors also extend this problem forward, logically, into what has now become a deeply divided country—already all-too-often cleaved beyond repair for compromise on even the simplest issue.

“When the ideas, values and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong, but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.”

In the immediate wide wake of the national attention now thrown at Emory, some students are attemtping to push back, calling the core of the problem racism and hate, not political expression. Some have gone as far as to suggest that Trump's name is a hateful form of expression in itself (thus those who actually, with a straight face, equated the scrawled messages to the start of a KKK rally) and have deplored what they see as an inability by the school to shield them from anguish.

A former editor of the campus newspaper, The Wheel, went so far as to suggest that the narrative had been hijacked by the mainstream media--which she clearly sees as both institutionally ultra-conservative, as well as complicit in racism) by turning the issue against the injured students and siding with free speech, a crude, blunt tool apparently used to instill fear on campus. In an editorial, Karishma Mehrotra wrote that the real issue is race, not freedom of expression or freedom of speech. She also refers to "structural and colorblind racism" as pervasive on the campus.

"Waking up to the name 'TRUMP' scattered across campus was a symbol of this broader narrative," Mehrotra wrote, adding that Trump's name is being used as "a symbol of hate." The shock of such a statement is almost comic, as if it had been penned as parody for film or television. But when one realizes that she is being serious, it becomes even harder to imagine that the editor of a major campus newspaper would promote such coddling in defiance of what is clearly one of our most cherished constitutional rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedoms, not coincidentally, placed in the first amendment.

One may disagree with much of what Republican front-runner Donald Trump has to say—and indeed, if current polls are any true indicator, even many within the GOP are beginning to harbor outward signs of buyer’s remorse over his ascension. But the expressions of “fear” and “pain” which have accompanied the mere mention of a presidential candidate—that the appearance of his name in chalk is tantamount to oppression and emotional torture—shows that the halls of American higher education are far more disconnected from reality than we ever imagined.

Related Thursday Review articles:

A Funny Thing Happened on Our Way to the Mainstream Media; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 3, 2016.

Should Women Vote for Clinton Because She's a Woman?; Carol Chance; Thursday Review; February 22, 2016.