Chalking political messages on sidewalks is exactly the kind of human expression that America’s founders enshrined in the First Amendment. So when “Vote Trump” chalkings appear on a university campus, it doesn’t sound like a moment for controversy.
But this is 2016.
It’s the year when Donald Trump is both the leading contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination and a magnet for racial tension, due to provocative comments about immigrants and Muslims and criticism that he was slow to disavow support from white supremacists.
It’s also a time when college campuses across the country have been wracked with contention over balancing free speech and minority students’ fight to feel protected and at home.
And it’s a political moment where disagreements are so profound that the country sometimes seems like it’s “falling into two armed camps,” says First Amendment expert Marc Randazza.
Those trends converged at Atlanta’s Emory University this week, with reports of numerous pro-Trump chalkings dotting campus sidewalks – done by a person or persons so far unknown. Was the chalk message implicitly racist, as some students charged, or does the outcry against it represent the very kind of speech-stifling political correctness that campuses need to guard against?
For many on this Georgia campus, the nature of surreptitious chalkings suggest that the message wasn’t merely political speech, but, in the words of student Isaac Lee, of “a different intent.”
Some students on the racially diverse campus, where just 4 in 10 incoming students are white, said they felt physically threatened. About 50 people staged a public protest against the chalkings, and conservatives on campus are planning a counter rally in support of free speech. The campus, in short, is for now writing a new chapter in the nation’s ongoing discussion about the boundaries of acceptable speech.
“I don’t like the sort of ‘fainting Millennial’ narrative, but I do take the point that, given that we only have two political parties, that we’ve got to resist – and maybe ‘resistance’ is complicated – a situation where the very conduct of a presidential election causes people to genuinely feel threatened,” says Gregory Magarian, a constitutional law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Here, the medium is the message. It’s a bland, mainstream message being conveyed in a sort of covert, transgressive way – that’s the combination that creates a sense of unease. When you behave like scary right-wing extremists, then your message is going to be perceived as the message of scary right-wing extremists.”
Hannah, a student who didn’t want to give her last name, said she saw “hundreds” of Trump chalkings on Monday, not the “few” that have been widely reported. They were concentrated around Dodd Hall, where many campus minority groups are housed.
The university continues to comb security camera footage to see if it can spot who wrote the messages. On Thursday, the administration said it planned no action against the chalker(s), saying the content itself did not violate school policies, although the messages did not follow guidelines that restrict chalking to specific areas and require prior approval.
“Other groups have been sanctioned for doing the same thing, yet here we have someone who refuses to take responsibility,” Hannah says. That failure to step out of the shadows adds to a “sense of menace.”
'Will this get me expelled?'
At the same time, some on the campus say the incident points to America’s deep political divides – rifts that colleges should be able to grapple with as bastions of free inquiry.
“This controversy really highlights clear and fundamental disagreements about politics, race, class and gender” in the country, says Michael Gordon-Smith, an English professor at Emory. “The problem for not just this university, but across academia, is that we’ve failed to create safe spaces for objective conversations in which conservatives can take part. So, Trump gives them a voice.”
Debate over the pro-Trump chalkings continued here Friday, as conservatives planned a First Amendment rally and new chalkings appeared in the morning outside the administration building that read “#FreeSpeechMatters” and “Will This Get Me Expelled?”
Emory student Josh Goodman told Fox News this week that he had seen similar messages on campus touting Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement, but that they had gone unremarked.
In a campus-wide e-mail in response to the protests, President James Wagner vowed that he wants to bring in “regular and structured opportunities for difficult dialogues.” Mr. Wagner said the school’s Freedom of Expression Committee will address whether those responsible broke any rules.
Wagner added that "during our conversation, [protesters] voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation .... I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity."
Separate from Trump and presidential politics, the balancing act over safeguarding the feelings of students while also upholding free speech and the academic mission has become a contentious one not just at Emory but also across the US, as campus groups have demanded concessions that would afford students extra protections against unwanted speech. An added layer here is that some of the protesters say they felt threatened physically, not just emotionally, by the speech in question.
'Whatever happened to free speech?'
Meanwhile, Trump has made a campaign out of flouting "political correctness" – saying the “wrong” things whether it’s about building a wall on the Mexico border, rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation, or calling female reporters "crazy." His lack of a filter has delighted those hankering for honest talk from any messenger, no matter how flawed the rhetoric, says Professor Gordon-Smith.
At the same time, Trump himself seems to want it both ways on free speech. After protesters tried to shut his rallies down, he complained, “Whatever happened to free speech?” Yet he has threatened that, if elected, he might try to curb First Amendment protections for reporters.
Trump’s rhetoric and raucous rallies have also veered onto volatile ground, dredging up memories of 1960s political and cultural unrest – such as when a white man at one North Carolina rally punched a black protester who was being led out of the hall by police.
(The local district attorney, after an investigation, declined to press charges against Trump for inciting violence, but police did arrest the aggressor on assault charges.)
That sense of violence barely contained has also found its way onto college campuses. Trump canceled a recent event at the University of Chicago out of safety concerns, after protesters and Trump supporters clashed.
Libertarian writer James Tucker was on the Emory campus this week when the “Trump 2016” scribbles appeared. “It was like cross-burning,” he told Reason’s Robby Soave. “It was absolutely intended to intimidate everyone and it worked.”
'No one at Emory is afraid of chalk'
Emory has had to deal with incidents that were more definitively hateful. Swastikas were drawn near a Jewish fraternity on campus in 2014. And earlier this year, a display by Emory Students for Justice in Palestine was defaced, an act that infringed on "open expression" and "hinder[ed] legitimate speech," according to a university investigation.
One Emory student opined online this week that "no one at Emory is afraid of chalk" – the concern is less about physical safety than about a climate of hatred created by messages that included “build a wall.”
What students are forgetting is that Democrats and liberals are using a similar playbook, says Mr. Randazza, a First Amendment attorney in Las Vegas.
“The goal among liberals these days seems to be, ‘If you don’t agree, then you need to shut up,’” says Randazza, a self-described liberal himself. “This is political speech, the most precious speech we have: ‘Vote Trump.’ Yes, [Emory has] the right [to restrict speech since it's a private university], but I also have the right to never read a résumé from Emory ever again, because their student body apparently needs a blankie.”
However the response to the chalkings at Emory plays out, the campus is now part of the nation’s broader debate over campus speech. And Trump, Magarian notes, has become “a walking teachable moment when it comes to the First Amendment.”