It was the day that fear and pain came to Emory University. No, it was not another horrific campus shooting. This day of terror was inflicted by chalked “Trump 2016” messages. In response, students staged a protest. Comedians, such as Larry Wilmore, mocked. The administration, somewhat amazingly, decided to take no action to find the chalk wielding Trump terrorist.
While this incident can be easily dismissed as yet another case of the absurdly fragile state of the coddled college elite, it does have some philosophical interest that makes it worth considering. I will begin by offering a defense of the pained and frightened students, then move to a discussion of free expression.
While chalked messages are frequently encountered on campuses, there are three ways to argue that the students were legitimately threatened by the Trump chalk marks. One approach would be to argue that Trump’s extreme rhetoric and apparent bigotry make his name something to be feared, such that chalking it on campus is akin to chalking actually threats or hateful remarks.
A possible reply to this is that Trump is not actually bad enough to warrant such a fearful response from the mere writing of his name—that is, the reaction is far too extreme given the level of threat. Another reply is that even if Trump is truly a threatening bigot, the invocation of his name should not suffice as a threat. It is, after all, just his name.
A second approach would be to argue that the chalk marks occurred in a broader context—that the much dreaded hostile environment had been created and in this context “Trump 2016” is a dire threat. This does have a certain appeal since, given the right context, almost any words can present a frightening threat. That said, it would certainly require quite a remarkable context to make an expression of support for the leading Republican candidate to strike legitimate terror into the hearts of grown people.
A third approach would be to argue that the words were written with an intent the threatened students were aware of—that is, “Trump 2016” and similar messages are a known code for actual threats. If this is the case, then the students could be thus justified in their terror and pain. This does, however, create a bit of a problem—what if “Bernie 2016” or “Hillary 2016” become code words for vile threats?
As might be suspected, my own view is that the students were most likely not warranted in their terror and pain. However, if it turns out that there really was a coded threat that the students understood, then I would revise my view. What is, I think, more interesting about this situation is the matter of free expression.
As many folks on the right have noted, there seems to be an ever increasing hostility to free expression on certain “elite” college campuses. There does not seem to be such a problem at many other schools, such as my own Florida A&M University. This might be because the students are rather busy with classes, university activities and working to pay for school. Interestingly, even some people in the liberal spectrum have regarded such things as “trigger warnings” and “free speech zones” as signs of an intolerance on the part of some of the left. These concerns, at least at certain schools, do seem legitimate—as supported by the Trump Terror Chalk Incident of 2016 (as history shall know it).
This episode of terror has not resulted in any change to my view of free expression: people should have complete freedom to express their views, provided that doing so does not inflict actual harm directly or indirectly. Making threats of violence, inciting violence or engaging in harmful slander would be clear examples of expression that should not be protected. What is merely offensive, annoying, or even regarded as vaguely threatening should not be restricted.
One practical concern is sorting out what legitimately counts as harmful expression that should be limited under the classic principle of harm. In this specific case, the problem is deciding whether or not it suffices that the students felt pain and believed they were threatened. On the one hand, one could use an analogy to physical pain: if something hurts, then it did cause pain. So, if chalked Trump support hurts students, then they should be protected from it. On the other hand, there is the matter of what can reasonably be considered painful and what would be an overreaction. After all, if people could merely claim pain or fear was caused by some expression and shut down free expression, silence would soon reign. Fortunately, good sense can prevail in such cases—supported by arguments, of course. In the case of the Trump chalk marks, this would be on par with someone claiming assault and battery when someone merely brushed past them while walking. Such contact might strike terror into some, but it would be absurd to consider it an attack. Likewise, sensitive students might fear the words “Trump 2016”, but to claim true pain would be an absurd overreaction. The real pain will come when Trump is president.