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Free Speech

Emerson College "[D]erecogniz[es] TPUSA Chapter After Publicly Denouncing Its 'China Kinda Sus' Stickers"


The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Graham Piro) reports:

The controversy arose after the group distributed stickers reading "China Kinda Sus" on campus—stickers that the administration, after initially suspending the group, later conceded were intended to criticize China's government, not its people. Not that it would matter, as either criticism would still be protected under Emerson's firm promises to protect freedom of expression, which make no exception for speech others view as hateful. But the group's intent didn't stop the administration from jumping to publicly denounce TPUSA in September for "anti-Asian bigotry and hate," nor did it stop the administration from then placing a "Formal Warning" on the group's record, asserting that it had to do so because of the "pervasive environment of anti-Asian discrimination"—by other people.

It'd be a real shame if all of these public condemnations had an impact on the reputation of the group, thus chilling faculty or staff from being willing to work with them, huh?

Unsurprisingly, that is just what happened. Emerson has now removed the group's recognition as an official student organization, purportedly because the group cannot find a full-time faculty member to serve as an advisor after their previous advisor stepped away in the wake of the stickers controversy. This derecognition comes despite the group reaching out to more than 50 full-time faculty members and getting no interest in advising it. Multiple part-time faculty members have expressed interest—but they are not eligible to be advisors under Emerson's policies.

Unrecognized groups do not have "access to funds or ability to reserve space," cannot use Emerson's image or likeness, and are not eligible for Emerson Recognition and Achievement awards….

To sum up: Emerson's administration publicly denounced the group, issued the group a formal warning for criticizing China's government, and is now revoking the group's recognition because no faculty members or staff want to be involved with it.

Some of the reluctance doubtlessly stems from faculty members' personal objections to the group or its protected speech, including the stickers. That's consistent with Emerson's recognition of expressive freedom, as individual faculty members possess their own expressive freedom to decline to associate with a group. But Emerson cannot condition a student group's recognition on the subjective approval of any number of faculty. And that's pointedly so where the administration has placed its thumbs on the scales, either through denouncing the group—after all, if unintentionally violating Emerson's policies gets the group in trouble, why would a faculty member risk voluntarily sticking their neck out and becoming embroiled in further sanctions from the college—or through refusing to assign a staff member to serve as an advisor….

For more, read the whole piece, which also links to FIRE's more detailed letters to Emerson.