The president of Emory University, James Wagner, says he will hunt down all persons who scribbled “Trump 2016” and other messages of support in chalk for the leading Republican presidential candidate. Wagner said that security personnel will review closed-circuit TV footage in an effort to identify the person or persons responsible. Some of the graffiti on March 21 included messages such as: “Build the wall” and “Accept the inevitable: Trump 2016.”
Such scrawled chalk messages of a political or social nature are commonplace on college campuses throughout the United States. While some oppose them on the grounds that they deface private property, other contend that they are expression of free speech. However, they seldom produce the sort of outcry that emerged on the Emory campus this week.
Wagner’s vow came after some students on campus of the private institution complained to his office, saying that they feel frightened and intimidated by the political messages. While Wagner appeared to endorse a right to free speech, he also sought to validate the offended students’ fears. This came on the day after dozens of protesters descended on the university administration building. They questioned why the institution had reacted quickly when swastikas were smeared on a Jewish house, but had not responded similarly to their concerns. The students are demanding that Wagner officially condemn Trump and Trump supporters on campus. While he refused to do so, Wagner did send out an email promising to increase social justice action on campus.
For its’ part, the Emory Student Government Association (SGA) announced that is authorizing the expenditure of “emergency” student funds to address the pro-Trump messages, which some students contend are “triggering” and injurious to their psychological well-being. SGA initially stated that “we do not endorse any particular candidate or political philosophy,” but then appeared to do so when it denounced the pro-Trump chalk messages.
SGA said in a statement, “[B]y nature of the fact that for a significant portion of our student population, the messages represent particularly bigoted opinions, policies, and rhetoric directed at populations represented at Emory University, we would like to express our concern regarding the values espoused by the messages displayed, and our sympathy for the pain experienced by members of our community.”
The group appeared to say that the chalk messages had actually put students’ safety at risk. “We remain unapologetically dedicated to inclusion, diversity, and equity, but even more so, we remain unwavering in the premium we place on the safety, physical and emotional, of the students we represent.”
“My reaction to the chalking was one of fear,” freshman Amanda Obando told campus newspaper The Emory Wheel. “I told myself that it was a prank, and that the responsible individual was probably laughing in their room. I told myself that Emory would do something about it.”
Emory junior Harpreet Singh told campus newspaper, “I saw one big one, ‘Trump 2016,’ so I thought it was an isolated incident and I didn’t think much of it.” Singh said, “I thought, ‘Okay, it’s just a guy who wants to write whatever he wants to believe in for his political campaign.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m fine with that, to a certain extent.’”
“What I also saw on the steps near Cox [Hall] Bridge was ‘Accept the Inevitable: Trump 2016,’” Singh continued. “That was a bit alarming. What exactly is the inevitable? Why does it have to be accepted?”
In an emailed statement, on March 22 Wagner reassured the students that the university was “committed to an environment where the open expression of ideas and open, vigorous debate and speech are valued, promoted and encouraged.”
“Was it really just a message about a political preference, a candidate preference, or was it a harsher message?” Wagner asked. “And I will tell you, those who met with me were genuine in their concerns that it was the latter.”
In his message to the campus community, Wagner said he had a visit from about 50 students, who “shared with me their concern that these messages were meant to intimidate rather than merely to advocate for a particular candidate…” He said that the students showed “genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation.”
Wagner continued, “It is clear to us that these statements are triggering for many of you.” it said. He said that the Emory College Council and SGA “stand in solidarity with those communities who feel threatened.” He pledged that emergency funds from the College Council monetary policy will be made available to “any student organization looking to sponsor events in response to this incident.” These funds are intended for “circumstances involving discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion,” Wagner wrote.
Among the actions Wagner promised, are refinements of the university’s “bias incident reporting and response process,” as well as the creation of “A formal process to institutionalize identification, review, and addressing of social justice opportunities and issues.” The latter has been interpreted by some observers as a promise to pursue students who foster dialogue and dissent that may be at odds with the sentiments of other students.
Robert Soave of Reason Magazine said of the incident:
“To recap: Some Emory students are so fragile, and terrified of innocuous political speech they dislike, that they immediately sought comfort from campus authority figures. These figures, of course, were more than willing to coddle them. It's enough to make you want to grab a piece of chalk and scrawl "Trump 2016" on an Emory sidewalk, huh?”