On Sunday, the Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP) erected a wall that stated “Israel is an Apartheid State” in order to raise awareness of the oppression of Palestinian citizens in conjunction with Israel Apartheid Week, an international awareness week. Hours after the wall went up, at least one perpetrator tore it down on Sunday night and, after it was reconstructed on Monday morning, it was torn down again, according to ESJP members.
Campus Life gave ESJP permission to construct the wall, and the group did not violate any University rules. The papers stapled to the wall contained information about ESJP’s stance on Israel and the organization’s mission, and the group used a nonviolent form of expression to share opinions about a controversial topic.
When the wall was torn down twice, Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair sent an all-Emory email on Tuesday afternoon that emphasized the right to freedom of expression for the Emory community.
“Emory University is committed to an environment where the open expression of ideas and open, vigorous debate and speech are valued, promoted, and encouraged,” Nair wrote, deeming the wall’s destruction as “counter to our community’s commitment to debate and dialogue.”
We at the Wheel condemn the perpetrators of the wall’s destruction who found it appropriate to silence a group’s right to expression and who also verbally assaulted members of ESJP. Our University values discourse and dialogue, and to silence nonviolent expression opposes the nature of a university like ours.
While it is positive for the University to respond to this with a student-wide email and to employ the Bias Incident Response Team, we take serious issue with part of Nair’s email.
While Nair’s point is very truthful — our community should respect the diverse members that comprise it and should not target individuals or groups unnecessarily — it does not have a place in this context.
“At the same time, we understand that — while the demonstration wall is an expression of free speech — it may be painful for some members of the Emory community,” the email states. “We ask all members of our community to weigh these responsibilities carefully when exercising their right to open expression. Let us deliberate ideas, ideologies and policies with which we disagree, rather than target individuals or groups with whom we disagree.”
Nair has been a strong advocate for students, but this part of his email has an implicit chilling effect — the discouragement of exercising a legal right, such as free speech in this case, by threat of potential sanction — on free expression. Because ESJP did not violate any University rules, used nonviolent methods of expression and engaged in academic discussion, this section of Nair’s email had no place in affirming the group’s right to open expression. As a representative of the University administration, Nair’s words come from a place of power, and when he asks student groups such as ESJP to “weigh these responsibilities carefully” after those groups have just been silenced, the effect could deter future actions of free speech by student groups who may already feel out of place at our University.
While Nair’s point is very truthful — our community should respect the diverse members that comprise it and should not target individuals or groups unnecessarily — it does not have a place in this context. Instead, the lasting message of Nair’s email should have been an explicit condemnation of vandalism and a commitment to Emory’s promise to freedom of speech.
The University should always protect and advocate for students’ freedom of expression and speech on campus, regardless of the ideology being expressed, with the exception of hate speech. We are sincerely disappointed in those who felt that it was acceptable to violate ESJP’s freedom of speech and disrespect the people who invested time, money and effort in the display.
Additionally, the Wheel does not take a stance on the enormously complex conflict between Israel and Palestine, but, regardless of anyone’s opinion on this conflict, we should all feel that the values of our community were violated this week. Open expression is integral to productive dialogue at Emory and is necessary to promote intellectual curiosity and debate on campus. The vandalism runs directly counter to this idea and promotes a hateful environment that propagates the bifurcation of students on campus.
Emory Hillel, a Jewish cultural organization, erected a Truth Wall on Wednesday in response to ESJP’s Apartheid Wall, and we feel this was an equally appropriate form of open expression. This response is productive and sparks the kind of dialogue our campus should facilitate. It’s important to discuss sensitive issues, which are often emotional. In order to learn and develop our own viewpoints, we need productive, challenging dialogue, and we need for that dialogue to not be silenced. We hope that bias incidents in our community and acts to suppress speech will be few and far between in the future.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s editorial board.