The Hypocrisy of the Free Speech Argument

On the morning of Monday, March 21, Emory students awoke to find a series of messages in support of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump chalked across campus. These messages, featuring phrases such as “Vote Trump,” “Trump 2016”, “Accept the inevitable” and allegedly “Build the Wall” evoked immediate responses from students, particularly from the Black and Brown communities. According to The Emory Wheel, a protest was held at around 4:30 p.m. at which students expressed their outrage towards the messages. They later met with University President James Wagner and other administrators to discuss their fear and discomfort, as well as the need for Emory to improve its resources for students of color and increase faculty diversity.

In a perfect world, these protesters perhaps would be recognized as voices for historically marginalized communities who stood up against a dangerous presidential candidate. In a perfect world, perhaps these students would have found compassion and understanding among their peers. Unfortunately, neither I nor the protesters live in a perfect world.

Once the story of the chalkings hit the national media, several opinion pieces appeared across various media outlets. Fox Sports’ Clay Travis called the protesters “PC bro pussies.” Townhall’s Matt Vespa described the chalking as “an innocuous display of free speech” that led “special snowflakes” — in reference to Emory students — to run off “like scared wombats.” The rhetoric is a less provocative in a letter  from The Emory Wheel written by Editor-in-Chief Zak Hudak (who does not represent the organization). While recognizing the pain and offense that the chalking evoked, Hudak argued that the protesters’ actions actually harmed, rather than helped, the overall conversation about intolerance.

In these editorials, the protesters are the villains. These authors transformed the chalkers into the martyrs of liberty, persecuted by a group of overzealous social justice inquisitors. Freedom of speech is the unifying theme in these articles — a freedom that, according to the writers, is being threatened by the protesters. Yet, in a report by the Wheel, one of the protesters clarified that what they want is for the University to acknowledge the pain caused to many students by the chalking. The report shows that most of the conversation revolved around the need for Emory’s administration to offer solidarity with students. As stated by Emory’s Black Star Magazine, “We are not asking for students to censor their politics … Rather what we ask for is equality and equity.” The piece went on to ask Emory and “individuals nationally to fight for our freedom of speech the way they fought for Trump supporters”

As an immigrant to the United States from a Communist country where people are often penalized for expressing unpopular opinions, I understand the importance of freedom of speech and how central it is to the well-being of a nation. That is why I must agree with Hudak’s position, that “Freedom of speech works both ways, and its hindrance affects both sides.” However, my biggest concern is neither the contents of the protest nor the chalkers’ action, but the selective application of the free speech argument through which one group of students is belittled and insulted for exercising the same right they supposedly threaten.

Yes, Trump supporters have the right to express their political opinions without censorship or penalties from the University’s administration. But at the same time, those who disagree, those who are hurt by Trump and his xenophobic platform, must also have a right to express their discontent.

The same freedom offered to the chalkers cannot be denied to the protesters.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when anti-Catholic sentiments were deeply ingrained in the U.S., Catholics were perceived as a threat to religious freedom. In a popular cartoon from an 1875 Harper’s Weekly editorial, the cartoonist portrayed Catholic bishops as crocodiles whose aim was to destroy public education and, by extension, the liberty of the Republic.

This is a paradox of the American reality which the protesters face today. When marginalized groups — Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, Queer people, Muslims, etc. — exercise their rights, they become the very threat to those rights. Therefore, they are expected to lay down and silence their discontent. Like those Roman Catholics in the U.S during the 19th and 20th centuries, these protesters are told by the media and their peers that their public exercises of free speech threaten free speech itself. They are told to channel their outrage into quiet conversations in tiny rooms rather than openly expressing it on the Quad

In his conclusion, Hudak wrote, “If we shut down the opposition, we lose our purpose as a university.” Yet, when marginalized students exercised the freedom to express their opposition, they were shut down by both the student body and by national media. Several Emory students reported and screenshotted threats of violence against them from strangers on social media. Most national news outlets continued to publish think pieces that portray these protesters and their allies as thin-skinned millennials who could not bear to hear a different opinion. If the actions of the protesters posed a hindrance to the freedom of Trump supporters on campus, what should we make of the insults and threats that they have received? Where are the concerns for these protesters’ safety to exercise their freedom?

The right for one to express his or her opinion, no matter how unpopular, must be protected. And no doubt, our conversations around the possibilities and limitations of free speech are important and should continue. But if we, the Emory community, are truly committed to freedom of speech, we must be as willing to support the protesters and to listen to their voices as we are willing to support the right of the chalkers. When we preach freedom but refuse to acknowledge groups of students their right to voice outrage, we are hypocrites.

Anh Duy Nguyen is a College junior from Lawrenceville, GA

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