Committee for Open Expression Defends Political Chalkings, Calls for Guidelines

The pro-Trump chalkings found on campus in March that sparked student protests were a form of speech protected by Emory’s Open Expression Policy, according to the University Senate Committee for Open Expression.

This 13-voting member Committee drafted, discussed and edited the final response, according to Associate Professor of Law Alexander Volokh, a member of the Committee. The response is entitled, “In re Donald Trump Chalkings and Related Matters (Opinion of the Emory University Senate Standing Committee for Open Expression)” and has been available on the Committee’s webpage about a week.

In addition to its decision regarding the protection of the Trump chalkings, the Committee also recommended that the University develop specific “chalking guidelines,” Volokh said. “We don’t have, currently, that sort of uniform, helpful chalking guideline.”

In terms of defacement, Volokh said that “if a display is protected, then defacing it violates the policy.” However, he added, “[The Open Expression] Policy does not exactly define what it means to deface [a display].”

Max Blachman, a Goizueta Business School MBA Class of 2016 graduate on the Committee, said that the Committee will be involved in the development of such protocol. “The Committee is working closely with Campus Life to develop exactly what we have proposed: a defined, consistent set of posting and chalking guidelines for the University as a whole,” Blachman said. “I am hopeful that we will have these policies in place for the fall semester.”

Assistant Vice President of Community Suzanne Onorato said that this policy collaboration between Campus Life and the Committee started before the chalkings, toward the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year. “We had already begun to work really closely with the [Committee] to really think … ‘How do we bring the policy to life?’”

Additionally, Blachman said that the Committee plans to implement an online portal, or form, through which students can submit concerns and reports related to expression rights to the Committee for Open Expression. Currently, he said, a student would submit a concern to the Committee via email and proceed to engage in discussion with Committee representatives over email or in person.

The Committee’s response and updates come in light of the Trump chalkings and subsequent protests, Blachman said, mainly because the issue was “so public.” The Wheel contacted several students who had protested the Trump chalkings, but each declined to comment.

Blachman said that the Committee sought especially to establish “where the University stands with regard to open expression, given all of the back and forth that was taking place with regard to the Trump chalkings.”

However, the 12-page response also addresses cases in which one or more people drew “a Hitler mustache” on a Donald Trump poster, cut up a Bernie Sanders poster, added “extraneous” text to another Sanders poster and used an Israeli flag to cover a sign that criticized pro-Israeli expression.

“Over the course of March, a number of sort-of … similar events came to our attention,” Volokh said. “We thought that [this response] would be a useful opportunity to combine them all into a similar opinion.”

Blachman said that there will be neither an effort nor a need to publicize this response excessively, so long as the Committee members are able to perform their due diligence in educating the community.

Committee members agreed that “the University didn’t do anything against the [Trump] chalker. [The University] wasn’t planning on doing anything, and that was proper,” Volokh said. “The bottom line is that the opinion does say that the chalkings were protected speech,” he continued. “Basically everyone was on board with the bottom line.”

While Volokh said that he does not endorse any particular specifications to the University chalking protocol, he said that “once [a chalked message] has been there long enough and isn’t relevant,” it is sensible for Emory maintenance staff to remove the message. “I think one hour is too little and one month is longer than necessary [for a chalking to remain],” he continued.

Blachman recalled that the Committee members provided “quite a lot of input” before voting to approve a final opinion. He added that the Committee does not intend to act as “the thought or manners police” in its assessments and responses. Rather, Committee members seek to support speech and resulting dialogue, he said. “We are strongly of the view that to promote and protect speech is to encourage more of it, not to diminish that speech.”

The Committee serves to “provide useful guidance on the policy” through interpreting the policy and educating the community, Volokh said.

The response, therefore, is “primarily of interest to people who are at Emory and people who are watching how open expression is treated on campus,” Volokh said. “I personally think it’s good if people know on the outside that Emory has a very strong policy … and a committee that acts as a watchdog.”