Pro-Trump Chalk Messages Cause Conflicts on College Campuses

Students at several college campuses are clashing with their administrations and debating the limits of free speech after finding chalk messages voicing support for Donald J. Trump scrawled on campus property.

Last week, at Emory University in Atlanta, officials scrambled to respond to a student demonstration after roughly 100 messages were found on campus. The students felt that there was an anti-diversity subtext to the so-called chalking written on campus about Mr. Trump, the Republican front-runner whose divisive comments about Muslims, women, Hispanics and disabled people have offended his critics but have tended to embolden his supporters.

Casidy Campbell, a 21-year-old senior at Emory, said in an interview that the pro-Trump messages contained phrases like “Build a Wall” and “Accept the Inevitable,” and said that the messages were written near multicultural spaces, like the black student union.

“We’re not here to infringe on people’s First Amendment rights,” Ms. Campbell said. “Think about how your language can be oppressive toward other people.”

On Thursday, Nancy Seideman, a spokeswoman for Emory, said most of the messages were near the Dobbs University Center, the headquarters of many student organizations on campus. The school also said that since no photos existed of the messages that could be considered inflammatory, their existence could not be confirmed.

The episodes at Emory and other campuses illustrate the power of a humble stick of chalk, a utensil used by college students for decades. “Chalking” on sidewalks has long been a colorful and low-cost way to attract attention to meetups, musicals and other events. But debates over political messages have become so contentious in recent years that many schools have issued policies over who can write them, and where and when they can be written.

Other schools have banned the practice outright: Wesleyan University issued a moratorium in 2003, after members of the faculty complained that they were being written about in sexually explicit chalk messages.

In a bulletin sent to students last week, Emory’s president, James W. Wagner, appeared to try to balance the needs of students who felt threatened with those who may feel that supporting Mr. Trump is part of political discourse.

“As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent and protest,” he wrote.” At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry.”

Mr. Wagner was then filmed scrawling a chalk message of his own: “Emory stands for free expression!”

The debate over pro-Trump chalking has attracted its critics, who feel that students who are upset by the chalk should get a thicker skin. The case at Emory especially garnered attention after the school’s student government offered emergency funds to student groups wanting to respond to the incident, and offered open hours to meet with students. (The school offers counseling services to all students, Ms. Seideman said.)

One high-profile critic is Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a longtime Georgia congressman. He is also an Emory alum.

“As an Emory alum I am worried about the fragility and timidity of some students. In the age of ISIS how can a name in chalk be frightening?” Mr. Gingrich wrote on Twitter on Thursday, adding, “Emory has me worried because I thought college was a place to grow up and explore ideas not a place to hide and be intimidated by trivia.”

Isabelle Saldaña, a 21-year-old junior at Emory, said that the discussion about diversity and inclusion on college campuses shouldn’t be limited to chalking. She said minority students have been in conflict with their administration for over a year over what they see as a lack of fair treatment in comparison with other groups on campus, and the percentage of minority faculty members.

“It’s less about the actual chalkings,” she said. “This isn’t something that’s unique to Emory. This is a national conversation, even an international conversation, on the value of black and brown people.”

College students have long clashed with school officials – and each other – over issues of censorship, but Mr. Trump has been something like an accelerant on a simmering fire, said Samantha Harris, a lawyer and the director of policy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“With the Trump candidacy, this is the first time we’ve sort of seen calls for censorship of, literally, support for a candidate,” Ms. Harris said. “For a long time there’s been a sense by students that they have a right not to be uncomfortable. You do have a right not to feel unsafe. The question is: What does unsafe mean?”

In other words, she said, students who write messages on the sidewalk in support of Mr. Trump would have a high bar to meet for their speech not to be protected by the Constitution. A message crosses into unprotected speech when it crosses into the type of harassment or incitement of violence that essentially bars a student from gaining access to an educational opportunity.

“One thing we see a lot of on campuses is the conflation of emotional and physical safety,” Ms. Harris said. “If I chalk ‘Trump 2016’ and someone says, ‘that makes me feel unsafe,’ that does not automatically convert it into a threat.”

Still, some school officials, like those at the University of Kansas, are moving to distance themselves from the messages, without calling into question the right of a student to write them.

“The chalking was not approved by any K.U. administrator, nor were we aware of it,” Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said of pro-Trump chalkings on campus. “The university does have a policy regarding chalking but in recent years has erred on the side of free speech when determining how to enforce the policy.”

Students tend to see things differently. Shegufta Huma, a Kansas student who shared a photo of the chalkings, demanded that the university comment: “Is this the post-racial paradise folks pretend exists?” Ms. Huma tweeted at the school’s official Twitter account on Tuesday.

Some students see the Trump name as synonymous with hate speech, and in at least one case, support for Mr. Trump and the speech against a religious group appeared to be closely aligned. On Thursday, the words “Stop Islam” were scrawled next to “Trump 2016” on The Diag, an open space in the middle of the University of Michigan’s campus.

“Attacks directed toward any member or group within the University of Michigan community, based on a belief or characteristic, are inconsistent with our values of respect, civility and equality,” according to a statement from the school sent by a spokesman, Rick Fitzgerald. “We all understand that where speech is free it will sometimes wound.”

Even if characterized as an attack, the message still might not necessarily constitute harassment, inciting violence or otherwise impeding a student’s learning experience, Ms. Harris said.

“There are many things that are objectively offensive that are still constitutionally protected,” she said. “For most Muslim students, simply seeing ‘Stop Islam’ chalked on a sidewalk would not literally prevent them from accessing the educational benefits of the institution.”

Correction: April 1, 2016
An earlier version of this article misidentified the school in which a student had posted photos of pro-Trump chalk drawings. It was the University of Kansas, not Kansas State University.

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