Tyler Zelinger is a junior at Emory University.
Last week was an interesting week for Emory University. A campus-wide email sent by University President James Wagner addressed a vigorous campus debate, in which the principles of free speech and the rights of marginalized students to feel safe on campus have repeatedly butted heads. This debate—about students protesting chalked messages showing support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump—has not been limited to Emory’s campus. Simply searching “Emory trump chalk” on Google will yield various news sources weighing in on the discussion.
I would like to start this discussion by making two statements. First, I am unequivocally opposed to a Donald Trump presidency, as I believe there are few things that could possibly be more detrimental to American society than electing such an intolerant demagogue into our nation’s highest office. Second, one of those few things more dangerous than a Trump presidency is the institutional stifling of free speech.
I do not intend to follow the lead of the many online publications demeaning the protestors themselves. I will not waste my time or your time by making meaningless, insulting claims that people are babies, or whiners, or oversensitive. I will advocate for their right to protest the Trump chalkings as adamantly as I believe in the chalker’s right to political expression. The simple fact that I or anyone else disagree with the protestors does not detract from their right to demonstrate.
This freedom, however, is a two-way street. The very same principles and rights that allow the protesters to storm into the administration building and demand to meet with the president of our university guarantees the Trump chalker their right to advocate for the political candidate of their choosing. What I take issue with, then, is not the protest itself, but that the emotional state or political opinions of one individual on campus have been institutionally verified as superior to the political beliefs or emotions of another. This is not inclusivity in any sense of the word. Instead, a failed attempt by university officials to placate a small group of protesters has devolved into a torrent of media derision aimed at Emory University.
The main issue at hand in these discussions is how the Trump chalkings have been interpreted as opposed to the physical messages themselves. On one side, students interpret the graffiti as political speech that ought to be protected regardless of the boorish and offensive nature of the candidate it endorses. On the other side, marginalized groups on campus interpret the pro-Trump graffiti as a direct threat against them. These individuals, as far as I can tell, believe the graffiti is representative of larger problems in American society—problems they consider to be evident in Trump’s recent rise to frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. I count myself among the former crowd and will seek to explain why I feel this way through addressing some of the concerns expressed by the latter group.
First and foremost, many people in the second camp feel that the chalkings do not constitute free speech. They believe that the goal of these messages was not to advocate for a candidate, but to create fear and anger in the student body. This is an argument I reject for two reasons: The first is that nobody can possibly know the motivations of the writer(s), save for the writer(s) themselves. To dismiss political opinion based on one’s interpretation of it as offensive or inflammatory, regardless of how justified those interpretations may be, is to make an assumption that is literally unverifiable.
Further, this argument is hypocritical when viewed alongside the statements made by many who support the protesters in response to the flood of media attention that this week’s events have generated. As the media firestorm has rained down upon Emory University, many of those who supported the protesters have expressed that they feel the coverage is incomplete—people were not truly “protesting in fear of chalk,” but they were motivated by deeply seated concerns born of lifetime experiences. To argue that the media coverage suffers as a result of not understanding the protesters while at the same time refusing to consider that the possibility that the author of the chalkings was motivated by a desire for political expression is hypocritical. Just as you say the media does not know or understand your motivations, neither do you know or understand the motivations of the chalker. If this lack of understanding has caused the media’s reactions to be simplistic, over-exaggerated, and insulting, then it has had the same effect on the angry and emotional reactions of those who have reacted most strongly against the chalkings.
Another popular argument is that the chalkings were done under the cover of night, and thus not a political demonstration, but a targeted and covert attack on the marginalized groups of this campus. Why, people ask, would someone write these messages in such a way, intentionally concealing themselves, if all they sought to do was express their political opinions? This, I believe, is an argument that has already been defeated by those who constructed it in the first place. Look no further than the Facebook feeds of those who most strongly align themselves with the protestors, and find statements full of hatred, vitriol and disgust for the person who wrote the pro-Trump messages. Though these individuals may believe themselves to be reacting with righteous indignation, it is indignation nonetheless. I would argue that it is quite possible that those individuals who wrote these messages at night because they feared for their safety ,were they to write them in the light of day, and these emotionally driven and insult-heavy reactions have convinced me that the author(s) would have been correct in that assumption.
Finally, the argument that to support Trump is not political speech but rather a morally incorrect choice, simply due to the fact that one is aligning themselves with a candidate widely believed to be racist, sexist, xenophobic or the negative “-ist” of one’s choosing. A pro-Trump opinion, by this logic, is not a political one, but a racist one. This is the argument that seems to be the most widely believed by those who think the University’s reaction was justified. It’s also the belief I consider to be the most dangerous.
Like it or not, supporting Trump is a political opinion. He is a political figure, and though it pains me to say it, quite a successful one as of late. If people wish to support him, we cannot condemn them for doing so. Disagree with them, argue them incessantly on every public forum to which you have access, and most importantly of all, fight them in the voting booths come the national election. But do not seek to silence them. Your right to be offended, regardless of how justified you may feel that reaction is, does not, will not, and should not detract from the rights of the individual who offended you. We cannot know the chalker(s) motivations, and we cannot dismiss their right to political speech based off emotional arguments made by those the speech offends.
The battle against Trump this November, should he win the nomination, will be one of the most important political events in this country’s history. It is a battle in which those of us at Emory who oppose his rhetoric must fight constantly. It will not, however, be won by silencing his protesters. Other politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and even Marco Rubio have welcomed those who disagree with them at their rallies. They let them stay. They are confident not in their ability to suppress those whose views clash with their own but in their ability to debate them and defeat them in the public forum. The only candidate who feels insecure enough in their own beliefs to encourage the silencing of protestors is Trump.
Trump does this because he knows his ideas hold no argumentative weight. They are emotional, based on building anger and fear. He cloaks himself in these emotions to disguise his glaring inadequacies. The most powerful weapons against this man will be the rights to political speech and open dialogue that he seeks to eliminate at his own rallies. I would urge those who truly oppose him not to push for those rights to be called into question here; rather, call on the university to make it clear that Emory is a safe haven for students to express political opinions of any affiliation.