Chalk may fade, but conversation is here to stay

By Siobhan Mulligan, Campus Carrier Features Editor

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Berry students responded to the chalkings in front of McAllister and other campus buildings with lighthearted facts and reassurances that the original messages were not representative of the whole campus.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the appearance of aggressive pro-Trump chalk in prominent places around campus led to a campus-wide discussion of free speech. As some students and alumni protested the administration’s decision to leave the majority of the chalk alone, others actively wrote over it with messages of positivity or filled the sidewalks with random facts and quotes. 

However, this was not an isolated incident. Dozens of campuses around the nation saw a rise in similar chalked messages as part of a movement known as “The Chalkening,” a nationwide protest associated with the conservative Southern Greek life brand Old Row. While part of The Chalkening arose to promote Trump’s candidacy, it was also a response to an increase of perceived political correctness and a shut down of free speech on college campuses. It first gained national attention in March of this year, when pro-Trump chalkings at Emory University garnered complaints from students who felt that the overnight spread of “Trump 2016” messages across campus created an unsafe learning environment.

Universities respond

The responses of the universities involved have been varied. After pro-Trump messages using inflammatory and derogatory language appeared on campus, the administration of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., modified their chalking policy to ban all political chalkings. Now, the only chalkings permitted are those used by recognized student organizations to promote upcoming events.

“It is important to note that free speech is encouraged on our campus, but not all speech that may be considered protected under state or federal laws is consistent with the university’s values and mission,” Chancellor Sheri N. Everts said in her announcement of the policy change. “University administrators can support free speech while also taking a stand against content that is in opposition to Appalachian’s values and mission. This policy change reflects our desire to do both.”

Are chalk bans legal?

Now that the election is over, the first wave of The Chalkening may have died down, but some proponents have called for another wave in response to the anti-Trump protests appearing at colleges nationwide. Either way, it
leaves a conversation about free speech on campuses that is unlikely to end any time soon. While non-violent, non-disruptive protests are protected speech, chalking bans at universities are sometimes left in a legal gray area. Although universities have the right to restrict freedom of expression on their campuses, exactly how far these rights extend depends on a combination of state and federal laws that can be difficult to decipher.

In Georgia, Articles 9 and 10 of the Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression outlines the differences in speech bans based on content and those that are content-neutral, such as a ban on chalking regardless of its messages. Content-neutral bans are acceptable when they restrict the “time, place, and manner of expression” and do not affect the content or expression of the messages, unless they may still be expressed through other means. On the other hand, restricting speech based on content is only acceptable when it aims to reduce slander, obscenity, incitement to violence or criminal behavior, or outright threats.

What defines a threat?

In the case of The Chalkening, it can sometimes be difficult to tell what would be considered a threat under law and what would not. Some may feel writing “Trump 2016” is considered a threat because of the incendiary nature of his campaign; others believe that while this political language is fine, comments such as “Dems beware” or “Mexico will pay” are threats to physical safety; still others believe that all of it falls under political rhetoric and is, as such, protected by law. Samantha Harris, a lawyer and the director of policy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said in an April 2016 interview with the New York Times that a message only
becomes constitutionally unprotected speech when it involves the kind of harassment or violence that could prevent a student from accessing an educational opportunity. 

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

A changing concept

While many collegiate speech codes have been struck down for banning too many forms of speech, a 2002 article from the First Amendment Center details the kind of speech protected by academic freedom. Academic freedom alone does not protect actual threats, overly disruptive behavior, or acts of intimidation.

“The First Amendment generally, and freedom of expression in particular, are not absolute concepts,” said contributing writer Kermit L. Hall. “And that is why they are at once so difficult to administer and so essential to a free society and an educated citizenry. Community interests and civility have always to be weighted in the balance.”

In other words, freedom of expression can be far more difficult to define than it may first seem, and its definition can change depending on the context. While private institutions, like universities, may have the right to censor violent or threatening speech, it can sometimes be legally difficult to draw the line between offensive and violent speech. Even if the original messages are washed away with the next rain, the debate about the offensiveness of their content may remain for weeks to come.

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