Context for the controversy over Trump chalkings at Emory University (essay)

The Emory University community awoke on March 21 to “Trump 2016” and related messages chalked on walkways, stairways, building walls and other places across our campus. Anti-Trump protests followed. Free and open expression is strongly encouraged at Emory, so the chalked endorsements normally would not cause anyone to blink an eye. But, in this case, a particular set of circumstances created a flash point.

News media coverage and even our own campus dialogues have largely essentialized this incident into the right to free speech versus the need for students to be more resilient in coping with an often harsh world. Some argue for the primacy of open expression at any cost, while others insist on the right to feel safe and unthreatened by certain expressions of free speech. In fact, the issues are much more complex, especially with the incident at Emory.

Although the phrase “Trump 2016” in and of itself may seem innocuous to many, in the context of the important work happening on our campus to ensure that every student experiences a sense of belonging, the recent chalkings spurred students to enunciate their claim to an institution in which they can feel like invited guests. Emory students from many backgrounds work hard to make our community better for all by raising our social and political consciousness around the many pressing issues of social justice.

First, protest movements are encouraged and are alive and well on university campuses. Although we have much work ahead at Emory, we have made significant progress by coming together as a university community to address last fall’s demands by the Black Students at Emory movement. Having identified shared concerns, values and passions, we are now positioned to create a more racially just campus community.

Second, some of the chalkings on Emory’s campus were a violation of university policies, certainly not because of the content, but because the chalkings were done in unacceptable locations and without reserving the space. Our guidelines concerning public messaging are crucial to maintaining open expression.

Third, many students who are members of marginalized groups have encountered intolerance much of their lives. These lived experiences inform their campus activism. At Emory, like many other institutions, students have been subjected to bias incidents based on various aspects of their identities, including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and political views. Such acts -- both overt and subtle -- take a profound toll on students on campuses that they genuinely want to embrace as home and haven.

Many of the same students find themselves serving in leadership roles and contributing their labor to improve our campus social climate, all the while continuing to manage rigorous academic demands.

It is no secret that many people -- across the political spectrum -- have expressed concern that some elements of this year’s presidential campaigns are offensive and prey on public anxieties about America’s changing demographics. The controversial and often vitriolic nature of current political discourse is clearly painful for many people and especially difficult for groups that historically have been marginalized -- groups that include many Emory students.

The intensity, timing and anonymity of the “Trump 2016” chalking incident produced a tipping point. In the context of a college campus, we thrive on open and civil dialogue, inviting even the most controversial perspectives and remarks. The college setting is a laboratory where students may, for the first time, grapple with such issues. Those conversations by their very nature can be difficult and must take place in a safe environment that is inclusive and guided by mutual respect and civility.

Demeaning language and personal threats are counterproductive and undercut the arguments that prioritize open expression, as well as those that call for a more sensitive community.

It is unequivocally wrong to suggest that students who support the Trump 2016 campaign should not have a right to express their support. Similarly, students opposed to the campaign have the right to express their views on what Trump 2016 means to them. One of our fundamental responsibilities as educators is to encourage respectful student activism across the array of complex public issues that challenge our nation and the world.

We must continue to work together at Emory and throughout our society to cultivate an environment in which we respect one another’s views and honor our collective right to express those views -- a community of practice in which discourse in the public square is as civil as it is robust.

Ajay Nair is senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University.

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