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Campus Cry Babies:  Part 1

What happened to the First Amendment at Emory?

A recent campus protest over free speech occurred at Emory University, a private institution outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Emory has a reputation for strong academics, ranking 21 under national universities in the latest U.S. News and World Report.

On March 21, 2016, someone (a student, presumably) wrote “Trump 2016” in chalk around the Emory campus. By that afternoon, dozens of students were protesting the chalked message, shouting to college administrators, "You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!”

In response, Emory University President Jim Wagner met with the activists. They told him that the pro-Trump message wasn’t political speech, but rather a threat to their safety. "During our conversation, they voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation," wrote Wagner in an email later sent to the university. He elaborated:

After meeting with our students, I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity. Instead, the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.

Some student organizations also issued statements:

The Emory Latino Student Organization condemns this as an act meant to instigate division on our campus. We have the freedom of speech in this country to express different ideas. But it is un-American to support hatred against others, and that is exactly what Donald Trump is doing.

Young Democrats of Emory President Alexius Marcano shined in on the "threat":

it’s really not advocating for censorship … They weren’t protesting support of the candidate, they weren’t trying to ban any campaign activism for Trump, they were just using their free speech to express their concerns about the circumstances…Trump represents something different, that’s threatening.

In the end, the university caved to the demands of the protesters and found that the chalked messages were a violation of school "policy," purportedly due to the locations in which they appeared.

Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory, wrote an article about the incident in the publication Inside Higher Ed. He made three points. The first was that protests were allowed at Emory and even encouraged:

Although we have much work ahead at Emory, we have made significant progress by coming together as a university community to address last fall’s demands by the Black Students at Emory movement. Having identified shared concerns, values and passions, we are now positioned to create a more racially just campus community.

Secondly, the messages weren’t written in the proper place; so, they violated school policy. Finally, underrepresented students have faced great intolerance:

At Emory, like many other institutions, students have been subjected to bias incidents based on various aspects of their identities, including race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and political views. Such acts -- both overt and subtle -- take a profound toll on students on campuses that they genuinely want to embrace as home and haven.

Although in other parts of his article, Mr. Nair seems to understand that it’s important to have a variety of different views and that forbidding discussion on a candidate for one of our two primary political parties is wrong. However, he doesn’t realize that that is exactly what Emory University is doing by caving to some of their students.

Instead of capitulating, Emory might have used this incident as a great opportunity to teach its students the tremendous value of our First Amendment. For centuries and even still today, individuals have been killed for voicing their opinions, but we (in theory) live in a country that actually supports people who speak out and protests too.

One thing Emory and these college students don’t understand is that by hearing the other side, people can better advocate for their view, evaluate their own point of view, or even reach a compromise. Conversely, it is through the very rules that Emory supports that people become intolerant.

And Emory, like many institutions of higher learning however well meaning, is not doing its students any favors by "protecting" them from speech. If these students cannot handle seeing a presidential candidate's name on a sidewalk, how would they handle it if that candidate actually won the presidency?

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