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Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Emerson College in Boston suspended a right-wing student group after members distributed stickers that read “CHINA KINDA SUS,” the latter word intended as slang for “suspicious,” according to the campus free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has rallied to the students’ defense.

According to documents posted on FIRE’s website, Emerson administrators sent a letter to the president of Emerson’s chapter of Turning Point USA on Oct. 1 notifying the group of that it may have violated college policies on “bias-related behavior” and “invasion of privacy.”

The letter imposed interim restrictions on the group pending the investigation, prohibiting the Turning Point USA chapter from hosting events on campus, including “programs, meetings and/or tabling.” The letter said failure to comply with these restrictions “could result in additional sanctions, up to and including dismissal from the College.”

The letter also warned of an expectation to “keep what is discussed during our conversations confidential” and said “you should not talk about the statements you make during the interview, with anyone,” save for a “personal representative.”

FIRE argued in a letter to Emerson’s interim president sent on Oct. 5 that the distribution of stickers saying “CHINA KINDA SUS” is protected by Emerson’s promises of freedom of speech, which are guaranteed in the college’s policies. The group also argues that the sticker does not constitute harassing speech.

“It might be offensive to others, but it is not a type of repeated conduct or targeted conduct that would amount to discriminatory harassment,” said Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer for FIRE. “It’s a sticker they hand out and people can take it or leave it.

“It’s a little hard to make the argument that it is speech that is based on a protected class in that the face of the sticker is referencing China’s government,” Steinbaugh continued. “It has the emblem of the hammer and sickle and references China, not Chinese people. I would say it is a criticism of the government of China, not its people.”

The letter from FIRE, written by Steinbaugh, also notes that the grounds for the invasion of privacy charge are “not clear.”

“Members of the organization believe that the charge is likely predicated on their act of recording video and audio while tabling in the Boylston Place alley,” Steinbaugh wrote. “If so, the open recording of video and audio in a public area does not violate Emerson policy, which prohibits recordings only ‘in an environment that is considered private or where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.’ There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public areas.”

An Emerson spokeswoman declined to comment, saying only that the college “is in the process of investigating the matter and cannot comment further at this time.”

College administrators have variously characterized the content of the stickers as “anti-Chinese” and “anti-China.”

William P. Gilligan, Emerson’s interim president, sent out a collegewide email on Sept. 30 saying the stickers included “anti-Chinese messaging that is inconsistent with the College’s values and will not be tolerated on our campus.”

“The expression of free ideas cannot and should not violate these standards that are integral to creating an environment where all members of our community feel a sense of belonging,” Gilligan wrote. “At this time in particular, when there has been a rise in anti-Asian sentiment, it is important to denounce all instances of anti-Asian bigotry and hate, and affirm our support and solidarity with the Asian and Asian-American community on campuses and around the world.”

A separate message from Emerson administrators sent to international students denounced “the use of free speech platforms for statements that are used as xenophobic weapons” and characterized the stickers as expressing “anti-China hate.”

Members of several Emerson student groups representing international students or students from Asia or China specifically did not respond to emailed requests for comment on Friday.

Leaders of Emerson’s chapter of Turning Point USA also did not reply to requests for comments.

In a video posted on the Turning Point USA Emerson chapter Twitter feed, an unnamed spokeswoman for the group who identified as Chinese Singaporean said, “The sticker intends to criticize the Chinese government, the regime responsible for the largest genocide in the world right now. It has nothing to do with Asian ethnicity or Asian culture.”

“Genocide kind of sucks,” said the Emerson chapter’s spokeswoman, who referred to China’s actions against Uighur Muslims, which the U.S. government has characterized as amounting to genocide. “We’re sorry, but we can’t fit that all into one sticker. The sticker contains the symbol of the Chinese Communist Party, which should make it obvious that it is about the tyrannical party that rules China and not about the people who live or come from that country.”

“We demand an apology from all the people who have been defaming our organization,” the spokeswoman says. “It is concerning that so many people hopped the bandwagon of hatred with no context at all.”

The national Turning Point USA group, which the Emerson chapter is affiliated with, said in an article on its website that “radical leftists at Emerson College are currently succeeding in their totalitarian tirade against the campus’ Turning Point USA chapter.”

Turning Point USA was founded by Charlie Kirk, a noted ally of former president Trump. The organization, which describes itself as dedicated to training and organizing students “to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government,” publishes a “Professor Watchlist” dedicated to “unmasking radical professors.”

In a brief profile of Turning Point USA, the Anti-Defamation League says the group “has received considerable support from conservatives and pro-Trump organizations” and that “right-wing extremists’ reactions to the group have been varied, but generally positive.”

Demetri L. Morgan, an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago and co-editor of Student Activism, Politics, and Campus Climate in Higher Education (Routledge 2019), said conservative groups like Turning Point USA have a “symbiotic” relationship with higher education, where they need fodder for their claims of leftist indoctrination or trampling on free speech.

“They do these incendiary things to raise the ire of the administration and other student groups on campus,” he said.

“You have to ask yourself what is the intent of these stickers, what is the intent of trying to raise this dialogue and is having these stickers with a meme on it -- ‘CHINA KINDA SUS’ -- is that the best way to go about engaging in what could be their particular concerns about China?” Morgan asked. “There are lots of examples of faculty and student groups handling those controversial issues with respect and nuance and insight, and I think we have to disentangle that from these efforts to draw a particular type of response that serves as currency for these groups.”

Justin Chen, a staff writer for Emerson’s student newspaper, The Berkeley Beacon, argued in an op-ed that the administration and students should hold the Emerson Turning Point chapter accountable.

“TPUSA Emerson failed to realize that by using the word ‘China,’ the organization is generalizing 1.4 billion people from China and the Asian Community as ‘sus,’” Chen wrote. “This includes the Chinese international students and Asian-American students at the college. Many students called out their wrongdoing and expressed their anger to the organization on its Instagram page, which means the organization knows that the message they are converting is deemed racist and knows of the anger rising within the Emerson community. Why are they still staying silent after piles of complaints?”

Chen said that the Emerson administration “should demand the leaders of the organization to apologize publicly and disband the organization instead of investigating it. An investigation is pointless since the entire campus witnessed what was unfolding.”

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