Free Speech Will Guide Us to Virtue

Unlike the narrative spun by many on the national stage, the death of free expression on Emory’s campus is greatly exaggerated. The media’s attention was pervasive and reductive — it rendered the true historical complexities of this campus into a simple, dominant and incomplete story of hypersensitivity on college campuses.

Moreover, the national conversation transformed the Trump chalkings, and the resulting protests, into the failure of Emory as an institution. Emory’s seeming abandonment of the ideals embodied by the First Amendment was wrongly emphasized by the media.

To clear the air, Emory has safeguards in place to protect speech that is content neutral. The Respect for Open Expression Policy, which governs free expression at Emory, unapologetically protects the right to speak of all members of the Emory community to freedom of speech. As a matter of fact, the current policy extends protections far beyond those granted by the First Amendment to individuals at public universities. The First Amendment only protects speech from state action, such as a university policy prohibiting certain viewpoints or placing burdensome restrictions, while the Respect for Open Expression Policy holds all community members to the same standard.

However, unlike the First Amendment, the current policy has not been tried and tested. There is a potential for misuse in the fundamental lack of clarity of the current policy, due to its infancy. Thus far, the Committee for Open Expression has done commendable work responding to controversial campus events in order to elaborate on the meaning of the policy.

Yet, there is much work to be done to ensure a change in committee membership or administrative leadership would not allow for drastic shifts in the forms of expression that are protected. Of particular importance is to draw clear lines for all community members as to what forms of expression are barred by the policy.

The most notable example of such uncertainties is the policies prohibiting speech that is harassing in nature. Harassment has different connotations in different contexts to different people. A change in committee membership leaves open the potential for a change in interpretation.

The community requires unwavering commitment by current and all future administrations to the Respect for Open Expression Policy, as anything vague and undefined may chill unpopular speech or further the dominance of majority view.

The beauty of speech resides in its ability to facilitate thoughtful and open dialogue. That dialogue has allowed engagement with history and context at Emory. It is through free dialogue that the narratives of others can be understood. Well-protected open expression is what enables the sharing of lived experiences and the sharing of very real grievances that students of color face. Understanding that relationship between open expression and the conversation about racism allows us to understand the conversation that our community is having about this incident. However, this discussion about freedom of expression has a tendency to overshadow the necessary conversations that are happening and that require our attention to inequality and grievances.

It is clear that there is a tangible divide over the state of race on this campus. Yet in reading the national story, there is no understanding of the very real history of racism at this school. The frustrations of students of color are the product of an accumulation of regular incidents on our campus, the stress that comes with being a minority on a campus that is predominantly white and the fact that this institution only in relatively recent memory allowed their participation.

In this lights, it becomes vital to understand that this issue is a part of a much larger conversation that needs to be had. Intent cannot be assumed on the part of these protesters; there are too many individuals searching for too many different things to grasp and attack any single issue. But there is one thing heard loud and clear from all of them: “Listen to us, hear what we have to say.”

Our students have experienced their university president refer to the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model of mutual concession. They have watched their peers on a campus TV comedy calling for the use of “lynching, tarring, feathering and cross burning.” Along with the cumulation of these experiences, students have also brought national conversations to our campus to advocate for the advancement of students and faculty of color through the list of demands and through the Racial Justice Retreat earlier this semester. No single incident can be understood without the context of the history of Emory’s racial climate and the national conversations by which they are being affected and in which they are participating.

Because of the lived experiences of students of color, incidents that may seem race-neutral to some are heavily racialized to minorities. Regardless of one’s political stance, the name Trump alone to some Americans has come to evoke fear and embody racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and hate. This was seen in two separate recent incidents at high school basketball games where the audiences chanted “Trump 2016” and held signs with Trump’s face to intimidate the opposing teams which were heavily Hispanic and Latinx. There are also numerous examples of violence at Trump rallies, many of which were directed toward minorities. To deny that this candidate is a symbol of hate to some would be turning a blind eye to the current political climate and minimizing the damage done to marginalized groups.

Freedom of expression is a tool that is important in changing the world, but it can simultaneously spread messages of hate. Despite this ugly truth, there cannot be a suspension of the free expression of those who seek to discuss. In the hindrance free speech, power is taken from ordinary people and given to those who are already powerful, allowing them to decide who can say what and to perpetuate the status quo. Freedom of expression is vital; through freedom of expression, activists are able to protest and challenge what they see to be wrong. It is because of activists that the Emory community is able to participate in difficult and complex conversations, such as the state of race on this campus.

It is through a strong sense of freedom of expression that the the necessary and tough conversations can go from invested groups to popular discourse and move toward healing the divide this issue has highlighted. Beneficial and responsible engagement requires speech that understands the other side and does not seek to silence nor divide. That is how any community must responsibly utilize this power. We must listen as well as speak.

This can be done only if proper and responsible policies are ensured that protect the speech of our students, our faculty and our staff no matter which way the wind may blow. Protecting these mechanisms for the future so this community can continue to engage with the most pertinent issues is key to ensuring not only the ever-forward march of progress but also to protecting the perpetual search for truth that is at the heart of academic pursuit. Let us continue to participate in dialogue and challenge the world we live in.

As students, we endeavor not only to develop our practical knowledge and political views before graduation; we strive also to cultivate our moral beliefs. Meaningful discussion can exist only in the presence of open expression — and we can grow as thinkers, as citizens and as humans with not only the allowance but the encouragement of that discourse. It is not merely the fate of the country that relies on free speech; our virtue is contingent on it.

The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board. No staff member involved in reporting or news coverage of related events participated in deliberations.

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