The opinion concludes that such vandalism conflicted with the principles of open expression that govern an academic institution. It expressly rejected the notion that any subjective feeling of "offense" caused by the display, or its alleged "incivility", or the acknowledge commitment of Emory to creating a diverse and inclusive academic space, could justify the attempt to suppress the SJP's expressive activity. All of this seems exactly right in my view -- had I seen the display, I may well have been offended (the SJP hardly has a spotless track record), but that is simply no excuse for vandalism or other thuggery aimed at suppressing their speech. Free expression requires that we sometimes must endure even deeply offensive, uncivil, or anti-pluralistic speech.
Today, Emory is dealing with a new objection to allegedly threatening speech in its public forums. Overnight, several campus sidewalks were chalked with messages supporting Donald Trump. As one might expect, many students find (as I do) Trump to be a repulsive racist whose success in this election cycle is a disgrace to the nation. But some of them have initiated a protest at the President's office, demanding some form of official condemnation.
Assuming, as seems plausible, that Emory does not have a general (or at least generally-enforced) policy of prohibiting chalking in support of political or social causes, the pro-Trump messages are no different in form than the SJP wall display. In both cases, many will find one or both forms of expression threatening and emblematic of deeply hostile and oppressive social norms. It is absolutely reasonable to be upset that people hold such beliefs. But in an academic community, this cannot result in any official censorship -- as one would have hoped the Standing Committee's opinion would have made clear.
Unfortunately, this may not be the case. The President did flatly decline to issue a statement "decry[ing] the support for this fascist, racist candidate". But, according to campus reports:
The University will review footage “up by the hospital [from] security cameras” to identify those who made the chalkings, Wagner told the protesters. He also added that if they’re students, they will go through the conduct violation process, while if they are from outside of the University, trespassing charges will be pressed.The "decrying" email would have been better -- at least that could be considered naught but counterspeech (the University expressing its opinion just as the chalkers expressed theirs). But the threat of disciplinary sanctions is entirely inappropriate and inconsistent with free expression values.
One other thing worth remarking on:
[President James Wagner] addressed several questions throughout the time in the board room, including “Why did the swastikas [on the AEPi house in Fall 2014] receive a quick response while these chalkings did not?” to which Wagner replied that they “represented an outside threat” and clarified that it was a second set of swastikas that received a swift response from the University.The comparison is obviously inapposite, as the swastika case was an act of vandalism, while the chalking was not (and, as Wagner indicates, the university response was not exactly "quick"). But more importantly, it brings to mind a theme I've remarked upon on several occasions -- the idea that Jews are anti-discrimination winners, and the way we get roped into controversies that we on face have nothing to do with. Hence why a protest against (non-Jews) allegedly insulting Muhammad can manifest as a cartoon mocking the Holocaust -- the grievance morphs from "I'm not getting the protection I deserve" to "Jews seem to be getting protections they don't deserve," even though one can fairly wonder why one's mind jumped to the Jews at all. And likewise here: frustration at perceived inadequate university response to Trump's racism (expressed through ordinary political activity) quickly converts into frustration that the administration "quickly" (sort of) responded to anti-Semitic vandalism as a Jewish fraternity. It is fair to be alarmed at the role the figure of the Jew is playing in these sorts of narratives, and to be skeptical of their capacity to encompass Jews as a protected group when they crest.