- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2022

Emerson College has ended official recognition of a conservative student group that distributed stickers criticizing Communist China at the private Boston school.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan educational civil liberties group based in Philadelphia, reported this week that Emerson quietly derecognized the student chapter of Turning Point USA earlier this month after no faculty member was willing to sponsor it. Emerson suspended the student organization in September after it distributed “China kinda… sus” — slang for “suspicious” — stickers that the school’s president called “anti-China hate.”

Jenna Coviello, Emerson’s program coordinator for student engagement and leadership, wrote in a Feb. 9 email to the student group that they would not be eligible for official school activities awards this spring because they had missed a “reactivation deadline” to receive recognition.

“As we do not showcase independent organizations during the ERA awards ceremony due to those organizations not being affiliated with Emerson College, and because TPUSA does not meet the criteria of an affiliated organization and is currently operating as an independent organization, [TPUSA] will not be showcased at the ERA awards,” Ms. Coviello wrote, adding that the group had “mistakenly” received an email invitation to apply.

The website of FIRE contains a copy of the email.

In a Jan. 9 email that FIRE also shared online, Ms. Coviello warned the students three days before the deadline that they had to find a “replacement advisor” or lose their status as an official Emerson student organization.

“TPUSA still will be able to function as an organization if they cannot find someone this semester, they just won’t be Emerson-affiliated, thus unable to use Emerson’s brand and likeness,” Ms. Coviello wrote to the students in that earlier message.

Emerson officials did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. But Justin Chen, assistant opinion editor of the school’s Berkeley Beacon campus newspaper, argued in an October op-ed that TPUSA’s “racist and insensitive views” should disqualify it as a recognized student organization.

“TPUSA Emerson failed to realize that by using the word ‘China,’ the organization is generalizing 1.4 billion people from China and the Asian Community as ‘sus.’” Mr. Chen wrote. “This includes the Chinese international students and Asian-American students at the college. Many students called out their wrongdoing and expressed their anger to the organization on its Instagram page, which means the organization knows that the message they are converting is deemed racist and knows of the anger rising within the Emerson community.”

Founded in 2012 by conservative activists Charlie Kirk and William Montgomery, TPUSA is a network of high school and college student groups that the Chronicle of Higher Education said in June “is now the dominant force in campus conservatism.”

Students in the Emerson chapter said they approached every tenured faculty member at the school to become the group’s new advisor, but all of them said no. TPUSA members said the rejections were apparently influenced by the administration’s public denouncement of the stickers as “anti-Asian bigotry and hate.”

“I was born in Singapore,” said KJ Lynum, vice president of the group. “So to be called anti-Asian was very strange.”

Sam Neves, president of Emerson TPUSA, said the school has refused to let the group have a part-time faculty sponsor, after recently deciding “that only full-time faculty can serve as advisors.”

“Part-time professors are the only ones who have the extra time to serve in the role, but Emerson won’t let them,” Mr. Neves said. “It seems that Emerson is actively doing everything in its power to shut down student organizations and ruin our college experience.”

Despite acknowledging that the students intended the stickers as a criticism of the communist Chinese government rather than Chinese people, the college still declined to give the group official status.

On Tuesday, FIRE emailed a letter to Emerson’s interim President William Gilligan on behalf of the students, expressing concern about the impact of the administration’s position on campus free speech. That followed an earlier letter on Oct. 5 that suggested mediation alternatives.

“Not surprisingly, TPUSA’s difficulty in obtaining approval of faculty or staff members follows the Emerson administration’s public condemnation of TPUSA,” FIRE wrote in the letter.

Last month, FIRE launched an advertising campaign that carried another message across Boston via the public transit system and mobile billboards: “Emerson kinda sus.”

In a statement emailed Thursday to The Washington Times, FIRE said that Emerson has not responded to its letters or the ad campaign.

“The college has now notified the organization that it has been officially derecognized after publicly condemning it, very likely chilling faculty interest in working with the group,” the statement read in part. “To be clear, faculty have their own expressive right to decline to associate with groups or speakers they dislike, but the administration can’t use that as a basis to deny recognition.”

Some free-speech advocates expressed concern about the college’s attitude toward the club.

“The Chinese government is weaponizing American identity politics in an effort to silence criticism of it,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. “People who denounce an authoritarian regime are not hateful ‘anti-Asian’ bigots; they are lovers of freedom.”

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at the nonpartisan free speech watchdog PEN America, called Emerson’s treatment of the students “a painful irony.”

“Colleges do have a responsibility to stand against anti-Asian hate, but offense, insult or anger from speech is not sufficient grounds to limit or discipline a speaker,” Mr. Friedman said. “If this is truly a procedural issue, the college should find a procedural solution, not retaliate against these students for their past expression because it was controversial.”

Jeff Myers, president of the evangelical Christian educational resource Summit Ministries, said the college still seemed unaware of what the students were criticizing.

“Emerson College penalizes a student group for exercising their free speech in criticizing China’s suppression of free speech,” Mr. Myers said. “In one act, the college proved the point the students were making in the first place.”

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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