Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Two Tales of Free Speech at Emory

A few days ago, Eugene Volokh posted an opinion by Emory University's "Standing Committee for Open Expression" which gave a broad defense of open expression rights at the University (Volokh's brother, Sasha, serves on the committee). The opinion was in reference to an incident where Emory's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter put up a mock wall in front of a campus building as a means of protesting against Israeli policy. Two Emory community members proceeded to vandalize the wall.

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.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Yes, it's assumed that when Jews are targeted by antisemitic attacks that we will automatically receive swift responses from those in power. The same thing happened at my college. A couple of years ago, the dorm room door of two Jewish students was covered with antisemitic graffiti, including a swastika. For a couple of weeks, no one knew about it except the students themselves and their friends, even though it had been reported to public safety. Finally, one of their friends wrote an article for the student newspaper, complete with a picture of the disgusting images. I (and others) were very upset and contacted the president requesting that he denounce the graffiti. He dragged his feet a bit but finally did so without mentioning that this was an antisemitic act, and later, in a private communication with me, said that he thought that it was up to others to educate the campus community about the history of antisemitism and why daubing a swastika was such a disturbing act.

Fast forward to this year and a number of racist incidents that occurred in the fall. One was immediately denounced by the administration (when a member of a local off-campus Jewish fraternity posted an invitation to a "Preps and Crooks" party, in which the "Crooks" were supposed to dress as stereotypical "thugs" with baggy pants). The second incident was perpetrated by the administration itself, when a public event was held, attended by the President and Provost, at which two older white male alumni addressed a younger African American female alumna as a "savage," after she stated that when she arrived at Ithaca College she had a "savage" hunger for learning. The President and Provost said nothing to stop this. Eventually, after a couple of months of protests, and demands that the president resign (not only over these incidents but many others over a course of years), he announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2017 academic year. At one meeting that was called to protest the administration's lack of action in working against institutional racism, some people said that in contrast to the events of two years ago, when the administration swiftly denounced the swastika daubed on the students' dorm room door, it was now dragging its feet in acting against racism. And in fact, this assertion was not true. I pointed out at another meeting that in fact the administration had dragged its feet in a very similar way two years before - something that people at that meeting were very surprised to hear.