Chalk messages in support of Donald Trump at Emory University. (Photos courtesy of Amelia Sims)

Conservative students at Emory University are planning a free-speech event for next week, after an outcry on campus over messages supporting Donald Trump.

Students woke up Monday morning to find messages written in chalk all over campus, in support of Donald Trump. That afternoon, a group of 40 to 50 students protested. According to the student newspaper, the Emory Wheel, they shouted in the quad, “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!” and then students moved into the administration building calling out, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Jim Wagner, the president of the university in Atlanta, met with the protesters and later sent an email to the campus community, saying, in part, “During our conversation, they voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation.

“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.”

The story spread quickly, as media such as Reason mocked, “At Emory University, Writing ‘Trump 2016′ on Sidewalk Is a Racist Microaggression …,” with references to students needing “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to protect them from presidential candidates’ names and slogans. For many, it was another sign of college students being so overly sensitive that even political campaigning could be seen as hate speech.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump cited the Great Wall of China while talking about the reality of building a 1,000-mile wall along the Mexican border after his Super Tuesday victories. (Reuters)

But some students said that given Trump’s rhetoric, the messages were clearly meant to be divisive. And the slogans appeared weeks after Georgia held its primary election on March 1.


Student petition being shared on social media at Emory

Representatives of the Emory Latino Student Organization declined to comment Wednesday. But they posted a statement on their group Facebook page:

Yesterday, the Emory community was witness to an act of cowardice, when someone decided to plaster pro-Donald Trump slogans all over campus. The people who did this knew that what they were doing was wrong, because why else would they do so in the dead of night when no one else could witness them? They did not do this merely to support the presidential candidate, but to promote the hate and discrimination that goes along with him. While some students only see the name of a potential nominee, others see hostility and venom which promises to destroy lives.

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.

Rather than use censorship and retaliation, we know that Emory has the courage to stand firm. Not with fear, but with confidence. Not with hate, but with love. This act which was meant to create discord among the Emory community ultimately serves to further unite us.

It wasn’t just the words themselves but where they were written that bothered some students, said Alexius Marcano, president of Young Democrats of Emory — for example, on steps leading into the building that houses the gathering places for Latino and black students. “A lot of people felt targeted by that …

“It’s the latest in a series of events that made students feel unwelcome. What Emory is, and what it represents — this is a pretty elite, southern institution… it can be very easy for students to feel not welcome.”

As for the protest, he said, “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.” It wouldn’t happen if someone wrote another Republican candidate’s name, he said. “Trump represents something different, that’s threatening.”

A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Amelia Sims, a senior from Memphis who is chair of the college Republicans at Emory, said she isn’t disagreeing that Trump has said insensitive things, and she believes people have the right to protest. “Those kinds of discussions are important to have on campus. But I think the response from President Wagner was just kind of embarrassing for the school — because it’s not his job to police who students on campus can and cannot support.”

She said the college Republicans — whose executive board supports one of Trump’s opponents, Ted Cruz — and another campus group, Young Americans for Liberty, plan to host a “free speech wall.”

“… Part of being in college is having experiences where you question your values, question what you believe. College is meant to be a time when you have diversity. Not just diversity of race but diversity of opinion, diversity of culture. It should not be that universities are just echo boxes, so people can’t encounter opinions they disagree with.”


Pro-Trump messages at Emory

A university spokeswoman sent a statement Thursday saying, “Emory University has not identified the individual(s) responsible for placing chalking graffiti in various campus locations earlier this week, and no follow-up action is planned related to the incident.  It’s important to note that chalkings by students are allowed as a form of expression on the Emory campus but must be limited to certain areas and must not deface campus property–––these chalkings did not follow guidelines–––that’s the issue regarding violation of policy, not the content.”


One of the chalk messages on Emory’s campus

Here is Wagner’s message in full:

Dear Emory Community,

Yesterday I received a visit from 40 to 50 student protesters upset by the unexpected chalkings on campus sidewalks and some buildings yesterday morning, in this case referencing Donald Trump. The students shared with me their concern that these messages were meant to intimidate rather than merely to advocate for a particular candidate, having appeared outside of the context of a Georgia election or campus campaign activity. During our conversation, they voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation.

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.

As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.

On the heels of work begun by students last fall and advanced last month through the Racial Justice Retreat and subsequent working groups, Emory is taking a number of significant steps:

Immediate refinements to certain policy and procedural deficiencies (for example, our bias incident reporting and response process);
Regular and structured opportunities for difficult dialogues (like the Transforming Community Project of several years ago);
A formal process to institutionalize identification, review, and addressing of social justice opportunities and issues; and
Commitment to an annual retreat to renew our efforts.
To keep moving forward, we must continue to engage in rich and meaningful dialogue around critical issues facing our nation and our society. I learn from every conversation like the one that took place yesterday and know that further conversations are necessary. More than that, such discussions should lead to action that continues to foster a more just and inclusive Emory.

Sincerely,
Jim Wagner