Recently, you may have heard about a real news story that seemed to be ripped from the pages of The Onion. At a prestigious private American university, someone had the audacity to write “Trump 2016” all over the sidewalks. In response, many left-leaning activists decried the chalking as offensive and hateful, and petitioned the administration for a response. In turn, the university’s president made a public statement condemning the chalking, and, incredibly, promised to initiate an investigation into who wrote the messages and punish them–either criminally for trespassing, or through the university’s code of conduct violation process, if the perpetrator is a student.
Naturally, there are a lot of angles one can take on this story. But first, it’s worth discussing the fundamentals. The university in question is Emory University, which is a private institution. As such, it’s unlikely this should be viewed as a First Amendment issue. Emory isn’t the government, so it can theoretically suppress speech anytime it pleases. And if, as appears to be the case, the chalker(s) technically did violate campus rules for chalking, however trivial, they would be guilty of trespassing.
Having said that, obviously free speech is much more than a narrow legal issue. And if there’s any place one should hope that free speech protections would proliferate, it would be institutions of learning–institutions like Emory University.
And when it comes to free speech, the general understanding is that political speech should be protected in all circumstances. Speech that threatens or promotes imminent violence is cause for concern, but political speech, no matter how ignorant, foolish, etc., should not be censored. Some European countries, like Germany, have formal laws against hate speech; in theory, the US does not.
In some cases, it could be hard to distinguish what exactly constitutes political speech and what is something more nefarious. For instance, if someone is denouncing American foreign policy in general, does that cross the line? What if that same person calls for resistance to America in a general way? What if that person calls for an attack on x in this city at a specific time? What if that same message is delivered in person, in America, and is asking people to commit violence immediately? At some point in that sequence, that changes from protected political speech to speech that is likely illegal. It’s not always black and white.
But while some cases can be complicated, this one is not. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine more explicitly political speech than the following formula: [Candidate’s name] + [Election year]. Or in other words, “Trump 2016”. That someone would be offended by such speech anyway, sounds more like good satire than real life. Unfortunately, it’s the latter. And the joke’s on them.
Because whatever the intent, this latest action, just like the Chicago protests, is bound to give Trump more support not less.
And on that note, we’ll refer you to the excellent commentary of Conor Friedersdorf on this story. Writing at The Atlantic, Friedersdorf unpacks the likely consequences of this episode, and explains in detail why, even opponents of Donald Trump, find this attempt at censorship so incredible, short-sighted, and fantastically counterproductive. Here’s the link: