Big Story

Are These Pro-Trump Scribbles at Emory University Really Hate Speech?

emory university trump chalk hate speech free speech

Emory University. (caribbeanfreephoto/Flickr)

This week, some students at Atlanta's Emory University reportedly felt threatened when pro-Donald Trump graffiti appeared around the campus.

They began staging protests against the chalked messages reading "Trump 2016" and "Vote Trump."

Other students, though, see the protests as anti-free speech.

So were the Emory students wrong to protest or right in their reactions?

What happened?

On Monday morning, students woke up to chalked pro-Trump scribbles all around their campus reading "Trump 2016," "Trump" and "Vote Trump."

The slogans were written in the middle of the night, several near spots where black and Latino students regularly meet.

How did students react?

Students at Emory got mad, and about 40 or 50 began protesting hours later.

Paula Camila Alarcon, a freshman who identifies as Latina, described her reaction to seeing the chalk writing:

"I legitimately feared for my life. I thought we were having a KKK rally on campus."

Alexius Marcano, president of the Young Democrats of Emory, said this:

"It’s the latest in a series of events that made students feel unwelcome. What Emory is, and what it represents — this is a pretty elite, Southern institution. ... It can be very easy for students to feel not welcome."

Do any Emory students disagree with the protesters?

Definitely. Some conservative students defended the right of the anonymous chalker or chalkers to express their opinion.

In response to the protests, a few right-wing Emory students are planning a pro-free speech event next week.

Where does this strong reaction come from?

At a Trump protest. (slester1979/Flickr)

At a Trump protest. (slester1979/Flickr)

It's no secret that Trump likes to say incredibly divisive things.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said Trump goes too far and gets too hateful with his statements.

Trump has also encouraged violence against protesters and other people who disapprove of him.

Many hear his comments as anti-Hispanic, anti-women, and anti-Muslim, and his support among white supremacists have genuinely frightened many Americans.

The protesting students said the chalk signs were meant to intimidate nonwhite students instead of encourage support for the candidate--especially because the Georgia primaries had already passed.

But here's the question: Is writing the name of a prominent presidential candidate who, arguably, uses hate speech the same thing as actual hate speech?

What is hate speech?

Donald Trump has been accused of using hate speech. (New Hampshire Public Radio/Flickr)

Donald Trump has been accused of using hate speech. (New Hampshire Public Radio/Flickr)

The American Bar Association defines hate speech as,

"Speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits."

We're in the middle of a national conversation about hate speech, especially online and on social media, but also in person.

What is protected under the First Amendment?

A plaque of the first amendment. (SyndProd/Flickr)

A plaque of the first amendment. (SyndProd/Flickr)

The First Amendment protects free speech:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

That means that, even if speech is hateful, you're allowed to say or write it without being prosecuted by the government or government institutions (unless you're provoking someone up close to their face, which is known as "fighting words").

BTW, some other democratic countries, including many in Europe, don't protect hate speech. That's why the UK, for instance, has debated banning Donald Trump from the country for violating Great Britain's hate speech laws.

It's important to note, though, that Emory is private, and the First Amendment does not stop private institutions from restricting free speech. It only stops the government from punishing you for speaking openly. If students feel unsafe on a private campus due to hate speech or overt threats, they might be able to get the college to ban the speech acts. Meaning Emory can tell students to knock it off with the political chalking.

How could the chalk messages be hate speech?

The protesting Emory students see the pro-Trump graffiti as hate speech because it represents Trump's ideologies. They also feel like the slogans were meant to intimidate black and Latino students.

Others say there's no way the chalk messages could be seen as hate speech since they don't actually say anything hateful.

How did the school respond?

Emory University President Jim Wagner. (Halle Institute)

Emory University President Jim Wagner. (Halle Institute)

The university president, Jim Wagner, was sympathetic to the protesters, saying in a letter to University students,

"After meeting with our students, I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity. Instead, 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 clash with Emory’s own."

He promised to create more opportunities to students to discuss their views on campus.

But a University spokeswoman clarified that the chalked slogans would have been perfectly within university guidelines... if the writers had just asked for permission to display them first:

"It’s important to note that chalkings by students are allowed as a form of expression on the Emory campus but must be limited to certain areas and must not deface campus property–––these chalkings did not follow guidelines–––that’s the issue regarding violation of policy, not the content."

So did the students overreact or respond appropriately?

Thoughts on this controversy fall into two main camps.


A lot of people outside the university thought the students overreacted. Some mocked the students for being "afraid" of the chalk markings, calling the students "fragile" and the markings "innocuous."

"The specter of a Donald Trump presidency is so disturbing to some college students that they're protesting pro-Trump chalk writings on their campus, according to a report by Emory University's campus newspaper. The words "Trump 2016" appeared earlier this week scrawled in chalk around the college campus, the Emory Wheel reported Monday. In response, a few dozen students gathered at the school's administration building later that day, holding signs that read "Stop Trump" and "Stop Hate." According to the paper, the activists shouted, "You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!" When protesters moved to demonstrate inside the administration hall, school officials issued a swift answer. College president Jim Wagner met with the students, who expressed anxiety that the writings were threats to their safety rather than political speech, considering Georgia's Republican primary was held earlier this month. "The students shared with me their concern that these messages were meant to intimidate rather than merely to advocate for a particular candidate, having appeared outside of the context of a Georgia election or campus campaign activity," Wagner wrote in a university-wide email Tuesday. "During our conversation, they voiced their genuine concern and pain in the face of this perceived intimidation." -from cbsnews *** Are these weak pussies serious? You need to go visit the safe space and have a cry because someone wrote Trump2016 in fucking chalk? #emoryuniversity #emory #college #trump2016 #coddled #offended #safespace #pain #sissybitches #spineless #hillary #sanders #cruz #vote #donaldtrump #trump

A photo posted by 2A & Current Event Commentary (@americansheepdogs) on

Still others are concerned that the protesting students are advocating censorship, or the suppression of free speech. They believe that, if some students prefer Trump, they should be allowed to express their views on campus.

Responded appropriately:

A man protesting Trump. (Cosmic Smudge/Flickr)

A man protesting at a Trump rally. (Cosmic Smudge/Flickr)

The students' supporters say the chalkings were clearly meant to intimidate non-white students. Libertarian writer Jeffrey Tucker, who was on the campus at the time, said,

"It was like cross burning. 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."

What do you think?

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

Get Kicker in your inbox!
Are These Pro-Trump Scribbles at Emory University Really Hate Speech?

Alison Maney

Alison Maney is a nomadic freelance writer originally from Northern Virginia. An NYU graduate since 2013, she has been spending her time writing for everyone from PR agencies to startup companies to actual real life publications. She wastes her time watching old movies with her dog, Louie.

Share your comments