Emory University President James Wagner will not allow an act of pro-Trump political advocacy to go unscrutinized: the administration will review security footage in hopes of identifying the person or persons who committed the heinous act of scribbling "Trump 2016" in chalk all over campus.
The messages horrified many students on campus, who complained to Wagner's office that they felt intimidated and unsafe. In response, Wagner tepidly endorsed the perpetrator's free speech rights while making every effort to assuage the offended students' fears.
But that's not the end of the story: Wagner also announced that he would review security footage in hopes of identifying the perpetrators and subjecting them to the "conduct violation process," according to The Emory Wheel. If the perpetrators are not students, trespassing charges will be filed.
Emory is a private university, and it has the right to set whatever policies on expression and chalking it wants. The Wheel reported that students who wish to write messages on sidewalks must obtain prior approval from the administration, and there are certain limitations on the exact places where chalking is allowed. Photos of the "Trump 2016" messages suggest to me that these policies were violated—some appeared in places where rain could not easily wash them away.
Libertarian writer Jeffrey Tucker was present on campus earlier this week, when the messages first appeared. He told me that I was wrong to mock legitimate criticisms of the "Trump 2016" scrawlings, which he characterized as vandalism of private property. The campus is a fairly apolitical place and the Trump messages were widely perceived as racial intimidation against the campus's significant minority population—not mere political advocacy—according to Tucker.
"It was like cross burning," Tucker told me. "It was on private property. It was extremely damaging and the students and faculty were totally embarrassed…it was absolutely intended to intimidate everyone and it worked."
It's true that Trump's vile campaign has moved straight past the bounds of rhetoric into actual acts of violence, but chalk drawings on a college campus are not instances of such acts.
And here's Singal:
A college using security-camera footage to track down and possibly punish students who expressed political speech? The only way to fairly describe that is, well, the only way to fairly describe the spectacle of a Trump rally delivered to a deliriously cheering crowd: extremely creepy, and a sign that something has gone seriously wrong.
It's true that Tucker was there—Biddle, Singal, and I were not. It may well be the case that "Trump 2016" was widely interpreted as code for racist intimidation. Trump does, in fact, support fascistic and xenophobic policies when it comes to immigration, torture, a free press, and a host of other issues.
Still, if it's inappropriate to write "Trump 2016" on the sidewalk of a university, surely it must be inappropriate to write the name of any candidate or major politician. And if that's the case, the simple fact must be that political expression is discouraged at Emory.
If Emory's administration wants to run a university where political activism is prohibited, it has that right. But that seems like a difficult rule to defend. Shouldn't college students be encouraged to engage in political advocacy? Isn't that educational?
It may be the case that the "Trump 2016" messages were intended to intimidate—perhaps because of the sheer number of them. I find it more plausible that the perpetrator was simply conducting a free expression stunt: pro-Trump chants and leaflets at other universities have constituted satire aimed to provoke, rather than threaten, liberal students. (This video, filmed by conservative University of Michigan students, is a perfect example.)
But in any case—look, there's a good chance Donald Trump becomes the Republican Party's presidential nominee. There's some chance he becomes president of the United States. That prospect horrifies me as much as the next freedom-loving person, but I can't deny that it's possible. Is Emory really doing an adequate job preparing its students to confront that possibility by protecting them from even the most straightforwardly non-offensive pro-Trump displays? We all wish we could live in a Trump-free world, but I don't think it does Emory students much good to entertain such a delusion.