Massachusetts College Decides Criticizing The Chinese Government Is Hate Speech, Suspends Conservative Student Group
from the highly-educated-but-apparently-low-on-common-sense dept
Emerson College may be a private university, but that doesn’t mean it can just ignore the First Amendment. In fact, it says it won’t ignore these rights, which obligates it to uphold them. This is Emerson College in its own words (archived link in case the college decides to disappear it):
As an institution dedicated to Communication and the Arts, the first amendment of the US Constitution is of high importance. The right to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of political belief and affiliation, freedom from discrimination, freedom of peaceful assembly, and petition of redress or grievances is not only a right but a community responsibility.
The College encourages students to present ideas, express their individuality and culture, and be open to thoughts or life styles that differ from their own.
Truly inspiring. And Emerson College truly respects this right. Except when it doesn’t.
Emerson College suspended a campus chapter of conservative student group Turning Point USA on Oct. 1 after members passed out stickers critical of China’s government.
The “conservative group” was Turning Point USA, one created and led by unfortunate human being Charlie Kirk and supported by people who think Charlie Kirk actually has anything useful to offer anyone.
No matter what anyone thinks about TPUSA (including me!), this response is not only overblown, but completely ignores the content of the stickers Emerson (and some of its students) got all investigatory about.
Under pressure from other student groups who accused TPUSA of anti-Asian bias and xenophobia, including the Emerson Chinese Student Association, the college launched an investigation into the group. In an Instagram video, the TPUSA chapter said the stickers are critical of the Chinese government, not the Chinese people.
On Oct. 1, the TPUSA chapter’s leaders received a letter from Julie Rothhaar-Sanders, Emerson’s director of community standards, stating that the college had launched a formal investigation of TPUSA under Emerson’s Bias-Related Behavior and Invasion of Privacy policies. While the investigation is active, TPUSA faces “interim action,” meaning the group is barred from normal activities, such as hosting events or reserving campus space for meetings.
Is this really “anti-Asian bias” and/or “xenophobia?” This is the sticker in question, which references a famous meme that originated in a multiplayer game:
If you can’t see the picture, it features a little “Among Us” spaceman guy dressed in red with a hammer-and-sickle insignia. Underneath it is the phrase “China Kinda Sus.” “Sus” being short for “suspicious.”
Notably it does not say “Chinese people are sus” or “Orientals are sus” or anything else that suggests this sticker refers to anything but the country and, by extension, its government.
Is China kinda sus? You be the judge. It refuses to recognize Taiwan as a country, has turned Hong Kong’s government into an extension of its own following months of pro-democracy protests, subjects its citizens to intrusive, omnipresent surveillance, censors its citizens and companies providing internet services, and is engaged in the ongoing persecution of certain minorities. That’s all pretty “sus.”
Yet, the college chose to believe this was actually an offensive thing to say and bypassed its own stated support for protecting First Amendment rights to limit TPUSA’s activities on campus.
The stickers distributed at Emerson and elsewhere are critical of China’s government. They follow a long tradition of student protests on American college campuses criticizing foreign nations, whether those opposing South Africa’s apartheid or, more recently, the government of Israel.
Freedom of expression entails the right to criticize not only our own government, but those of foreign nations, even when that criticism is offensive to the “dignity” of those states or threatens to upend “vital national interest[s.]”
Even if the college is concerned about its obligations under Title VII, which requires it to investigate and respond to allegations of hostile student environments, this sticker ain’t it.
First, the speech is not based on race, ethnicity, or national origin. The stickers do not invoke or traffic in stereotypes associated with people of Chinese descent or origin. Instead, the stickers are speech critical of China’s government. The stickers utilize the familiar emblem of the sole governing party of the country, superimposed over a video game character bearing the same red color of China’s flag. The sticker’s text (“China kinda sus”) refers to the name of the country, not its people. Criticism of a foreign government is not inherently criticism of the people it purports to represent, even if people who hail from, descend from, or support that particular nation find that criticism personally offensive.
Second, even assuming the stickers’ message was capable of being construed as speech based on race, ethnicity, or national origin, it does not rise to the level of peer-on-peer harassment as properly defined under the law.
If Emerson wants to stay out of the lawsuit defendant business, it will drop this investigation and reinstate TPUSA’s rights and privileges. If it would rather continue to pretend that criticism of a foreign government is somehow harassment of the student body, it should probably give its legal counsel department heads up that it will be expected to defend the indefensible in the near future.
Oh, and even if you could make the argument that the combination of TPUSA and its stickers were problematic, Emerson took all this up a notch when its Twitter account started “hiding” any tweet that referenced China, including images of Winnie the Pooh. In case you don’t recall, China has a longstanding policy of censoring images of Winnie the Pooh because its President, Xi Jinping, vaguely resembles the fictional bear.
Wow. Emerson College?which is investigating a student group for stickers critical of China?s government?is hiding tweet replies that mention China. *Including ones that only show Winnie the Pooh, which is censored in China because people mockingly compare him to Xi Jinping.* https://t.co/PhwjFwnOHo pic.twitter.com/q0A6dgUF2s
— Sarah McLaughlin (@sarahemclaugh) October 7, 2021
So, yeah, an American college was literally hiding tweets in the identical manner as the Chinese government, to avoid upsetting the Chinese President. Of course, that only resulted in a lot more posts about Winnie the Pooh, nearly all of which Emerson College has hidden. It also blocked users who were tweeting Winnie the Pooh images. Kinda sus, actually. And really, doesn’t live up to the promise of a college that “encourages students to present ideas, express their individuality and culture, and be open to thoughts or life styles that differ from their own.”