Robert Schmad (23C) walks around campus with his satchel, taping up flyers for his club. In the days before the election, the fliers have been getting torn down more than ever before. Schmad puts new ones up to replace them. Standing on a ledge, he tapes them to the highest possible part of announcement boards and lamp posts, out of reach. His flyers, announcing the next general body meeting of the Emory College Republicans, picture Richard Nixon and two anime girls. Above them in blue letters is a message: “All are welcome.”
Tearing down a flier is a simple, small action, but it is not insignificant. With this year’s contentious Georgia midterm election and its expected effects on hot-button topics like abortion and gun rights, political tensions and polarization are rising. As is, perhaps, an unwillingness among Americans to listen.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a national free-speech organization, ranks universities each year in terms of open expression and inquiry on campus based on data from student surveys and universities’ free speech policies. Out of the 208 colleges in the U.S. surveyed for 2022, Emory ranked 82 overall. In the breakdown of its overall score, Emory’s ranking slipped in three major categories: comfort expressing ideas (143), disruptive conduct (143) and tolerance for conservative speakers (163). On the eve of the midterm election, with politics at the forefront of discussions on campus, The Wheel spoke with students and faculty about the state of political discourse at Emory.
Policy on Paper
Emory is no stranger to free speech controversies. In March of 2016, pro-Trump chalkings incited student protests that made national headlines. In the fall of 2018, Professor of Law Paul J. Zweir II came under fire for using a racial slur while discussing a case about racial discrimination. Additionally, Heather Mac Donald’s Jan. 2020 campus speech, funded by Marvin Schwartz, drew calls from students to remove his name from the Schwartz center.
It was a free speech controversy, when students protested Sodexo’s labor relations on the quadrangle at Emory in 2011, that prompted the creation of the Committee for Open Expression (COE) of the University Senate. The committee, composed of representatives members of the community ranging from students to faculty, is an advisory body that interprets campus events in light of the open expression policy and educates the community on issues related to open expression. Over the years, the committee has heard a wide variety of on campus controversies.
In all cases, Emory and the committee have taken strong stances in support of free speech, including Emory’s notable 2016 election chalking controversy.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable to treat any speech differently than any other because of the content or viewpoint of that speech,” former COE chair Alexander Volokh said. “We don’t care if it could be characterized as hate speech and that’s exactly right—that’s exactly what the First Amendment would require too. The First Amendment has no hate speech exception.”
Last year, Volokh was entangled in a free speech controversy after using a homophobic slur in the classroom while referencing Snyder v. Phelps. Law students called the action “hurtful” and staged a walkout in Sept. 2021. Other students who defended his usage of the slur countered the protest with a walk-in.
One of the challenges of the COE is that their existence is not well known among students, according to current Chair Ilya Nemenman.
“If there are growing tensions, we might not even be aware of them simply because people do not know that we exist, and they don’t know that they can communicate those tensions to us,” Nemenman said.
On paper, Emory’s Open Expression Policy places few restrictions on free speech. Volokh praised the policy, calling it one of the “strongest” among private universities, saying that in some ways, it goes even beyond what the First Amendment would require.
FIRE gives Emory a “green” rating for its written policies surrounding student speech, the highest ranking possible for a university’s speech code.
“Some people are under the misimpression that the University did not take any action in response to what I did, which is totally wrong,” Volokh said about his controversy. “The University very strongly supported my right to do those things.”
At all stages of the dispute, the official bodies of Emory backed Volokh, who recused himself from the COE while they investigated the incident. Volokh said it was mostly students that called for more retaliatory action against him.
“I think that our policy is good, the adults in the room generally do the right thing and that to the extent there are views that are antithetical to free speech, they mostly come from the students,” Volokh said.
On the Ground Floor
Emory ranked fourth in the nation in 2021 for FIRE’s college free speech rankings. The University dropped 78 places to 82 overall in the 2022 study. Emory Free Speech Forum (EFSF) President Michael Reed-Price (24L) attributed this dramatic drop in ranking to students’ changing perceptions, as COE has not made any revisions to the speech policy since 2018.
“Emory has robust speech codes protecting open expression for students and faculty,” Reed-Price said. “What that says to me is that Emory does not create a culture where students are encouraged to debate ideas.”
In the year since the 2021 rankings came out, Emory has faced multiple challenges to free speech among the student body. Emory’s Student Bar Association refused to charter the EFSF in Feb. 2022, citing that discussions on controversial topics could be harmful to students. The incident drew backlash from national free speech organizations, including FIRE.
Reed-Price explained that controversial topics could come into play on the ballot this year, and that students who vote will be making decisions about them.
“I think it’s scary for democracy when people don’t know what they’re up against and when we have an atmosphere on campus where people aren’t saying what they think, it doesn’t help anyone,” Reed-Price said. “If there are issues that are gonna be on the ballot, those issues should be discussed, even if they might be uncomfortable or offensive to other people.”
Different Sides of the Spectrum
Political discussions on campus look different, depending on what side of the political spectrum students fall on.
“Most people on this campus are generally aligned with the Democratic Party’s mission and platform,” Emory Young Democrats co-President Ash Shankar (23B). “So, I would say overall, the ideas that we provide and communicate to people are generally well received.”
With a large executive board of 25 people, in addition to a large number of liberal students as general body members, Young Democrats draws students that identify as Democrats but represent a wide range of beliefs.
“We’re all very different politically,” Shankar said. “But, that’s also one of our strengths that we have this diversity of opinion because people bring in different perspectives.”
Students outside of the club have come to Young Democrats meetings and disagreed on political issues. Young Democrats co-President Divya Kishore (23C) stressed the importance of creating space for disagreement.
“That’s something that’s really important, especially on Emory’s campus, to be able to have these discussions about differences of opinion, but to be able to have done so in a very safe way,” she said.
Young Democrats have been busy in the months leading up to the election, registering over 400 new voters. Young Democrats published a Oct. 26 op-ed in the Wheel, encouraging students to vote blue in the midterm election.
“On the same page as that op-ed was another op-ed displaying [that had] quite opposite points to us, almost encouraging students not to vote,” Kishore said. “And, that’s where I really find that we’re not talking about values anymore. We’re not talking about issues anymore.”
Shankar agreed with Kishore that some discussions are unproductive.
“I don’t think that’s how you should play the game,” Shankar said. “If you really believe in your ideas, you would go out and you would try to explain it to people and you’d try to make people think about it more critically.”
Schmad knows that College Republicans has gotten criticism for not pushing voting initiatives on campus.
“In terms of what those result in, registering college students tends to benefit the Democratic Party, and that’s not really something that we think aligns with our interests as an organization,” Schmad said. “So, we tend to avoid that.”
The club’s election efforts have been more internal, making sure its members are registered to vote and encouraging them to do so. But, expressing conservative ideals on campus comes with a price, even without an election on the horizon.
“There are a lot of people who have pretty conservative ideas, similar to myself and won’t necessarily express those,” Schmad said. “It’s just not worth it for them.”
Schmad came into college wanting to debate with his peers. He’s found that he hasn’t gotten that opportunity on Emory’s campus.
“It’s very strange because it’s not just that people want to punish us for our views,” he said. “They don’t even want to discuss them in a formal capacity. It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing.” Most organizations College Republicans have reached out to have refused to participate in joint events or hold debates, Schmad said.
If universities serve as microcosms of society, then perhaps, Emory mirrors the political polarization of America. Nemenman wishes it didn’t.
“Universities are our best, and one of the few, tools that we as a society have to build bridges among different viewpoints,” he said. “This is by construction, the place where we need to find truth among many competing ideas.”
He hopes that faculty will consistently deliver the message that open expression is part of University culture to new students, and teach them ways to discuss different political beliefs.
“We do not tell our students as faculty here at Emory, ‘Some of the things that you will hear, some of the ideas that you will hear will make you uncomfortable, and that’s okay. This is by design,’” Nemenman said. “‘The way to address this discomfort is not to attack the speech or the speaker, but to make a better argument.’”
Reed-Price worried that lack of discussion on campus will translate to less informed voters this election.
“It’s important when you’re voting that you understand what’s at stake,” Reed-Price said. “People aren’t gonna know what’s at stake if we take issues off the table.”
In terms of what comes after the election, Schmad said campus could be in need of free speech more than ever.
“With the way polling is shaping up, things are going to be pretty hot on campus after the eighth,” Schmad said. “I would hope that that makes people more disposed to talk with conservatives—more predisposed to engage in dialogue.”