Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Writing ‘Trump 2016!’ on the sidewalk is not a threat of racial violence

A few days ago, someone at Emory University anonymously wrote the phrases “Trump for President,” and “Trump 2016” in chalk on various campus sidewalks and buildings. At a place of higher education, that’s disappointing to see.

It also, I shit you not, prompted 40-50 students to storm the offices of Emory President James Wagner, demanding answers, outrage, action and censorship.

And this storming, I shit you neither, prompted President Wagner to write this long, apologetic, introspective response letter to the students about the university’s ongoing efforts to combat racism, and email it to every single student at Emory.

At a place of higher education, this is far more disappointing to see.

One of my good libertarian friends goes to Emory, and she lamented the reaction of her fellow students online, promising to respond more appropriately by adding an “f” to the signs with chalk of her own (a reference to John Oliver’s famous and excellent segment on Trump, in which he revealed that Trump’s ancestral name was “Drumpf” and implored Americans to “Make Donald Drumpf Again!”).

One of HER friends (who I can only presume is far less libertarian than she), responded to her post with the following comments:

Have you ever thought about the fact that some people are upset because there are people at this school supporting a man that literally wants them dead?

You all are literal pieces of shit. It's unbelievable that you wouldn't understand that marginalized groups are AFRAID of our safety here. We never know when one of his supporters could come and fight us, beat us up, or kill us.

Below is my response to that person:

Donald Trump is a racist piece of shit, but who at Emory does he want dead? None of us know for absolute certain that someone won't come and beat us up or kill us today, but it is extremely unlikely to happen to any individual, marginalized or otherwise. And most importantly to [my friend’s] status, the likelihood that it will happen is not increased by the revelation that someone at Emory supports Donald Trump's candidacy.
Nobody hates Trump more than [my friend], and most of her friends commenting here hate him too (myself included). Should anybody ever try to hurt you for so baseless a reason as the color of your skin, I would be the first to step up to protect you and I'm certain most Emory students would do the same. I too am offended and angered and frightened by the prospect if a Trump presidency, and I understand you have a perspective as a black woman that I can never fully appreciate. I am sincerely sorry that in 21st century America you are still made to feel ostracized or worse by very powerful people, and I am eager to work beside you in changing that.
But none of that gives you a blank check to censor anything that frightens you or makes you uncomfortable. To prohibit people from erecting signs supporting Trump is to futilely battle the symptoms of racism, not to address its root cause. Only discussion can do that. Trump supporters are ignorant morons, but they are not literal equivalents to Klansman lynch mobs from 60 years ago. They have a right to express their beliefs every bit as much as you do yours.

That this even needs to be explained to people on the modern left validates every "slippery slope" concern ever raised by modern conservative free speech defenders. Wagner's letter declared that because the comments "appeared outside of the context of a Georgia election or campus campaign activity...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 is to say, because some students claim to have been intimidated by the words "Trump 2016", such speech does not qualify as protected "political" speech about "candidate choice", but rather as that sort of speech which colleges are justified in censoring "to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry." And this is not some wayward outlier student writing this, it's the President of the University.

If explicit, by name-endorsement of a leading major party candidate for a specific election in a specified year can be categorized as non-political speech, 
even in the heart of the national debate about that candidate's merits, what speech could possibly be political?

And if avoiding emotional harm to subjectively oppressed demographics is so important as to justify restrictions on even expressly political speech, at state-funded universities, which sort of speech remains the first amendment to protect?

Addendum: As fellow libertarian Jeffrey Tucker points out, this is technically a case of vandalism, as Emory is a private university with specific policies about when things can be written on its property, and those appear to have been violated. Also, he alleges it was written "maybe thousands of times," which does make it seem like it could have plausibly been aimed at intimidation. He makes some good points and adds some important nuance, but I stand by what I wrote here. First, I think he's being silly to argue that he doubts one single person at Emory supports Trump. Emory has over 14,000 students, in a conservative Southern state where Trump won 38.8% of the Republican vote. I don't care how liberal campuses are these days, it's just statistically implausible he's right about that. Second, chalk washes off in the rain, so no property is permanently damaged, which means this particular incidence of vandalism is about as egregious a property rights violation as egging someone's house on Halloween. Thirdly, colleges should be encouraging their students to write political messages on campus, not disavowing it and calling it vandalism, so maybe Emory's policies ought to be addressed. Fourthly, something tells me vandalism is not what the students "occupying" the President's office took issue with, and that they'd have felt the same impulse to censor had someone held up signs or chanted through a microphone with the same words. And finally, even if it was both meant to and had the effect of intimidation, it's not the sort of direct incitement to violence that warrants a speech restriction. Comparing it to a burning cross is a smidge over the top, don't you think Jeff?

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