UT chancellor releases statement on racially charged messages on the Rock

(Courtesy: WATE)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – University of Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport released a statement Friday after racially charged messages appeared on the Rock on the UT campus in recent weeks.

In the statement, Davenport acknowledged that the Rock has been painted several times by a “self-described racial separatist group” over the past month.

“Across the country, white supremacist groups are targeting colleges and universities, hoping to promote their beliefs and recruit members,” said Davenport. “Groups like the one that has been writing on our Rock have been described as being closely aligned with neo-Nazis and other hardline racist organizations.”

Davenport believes the groups are coming to the UT campus because of their commitment to inclusion and mission to promote free speech.

The Rock, long known as an area for free speech and expression on the campus, can be painted by anyone with a can of spray paint and a message. The message on the Rock, located across from Fraternity Park, is often changed several times a day as various groups post their message.

“Even though the First Amendment to the Constitution protects hate speech, that does not mean we must remain silent about it,” Davenport said. “In fact, we have a responsibility to condemn what we know is wrong.”

Davenport encouraged anyone who feels vulnerable or targeted to reach out to campus administrators for support.

“I encourage all of you to be guardians of our campus. Protect it and make it a symbol of what you honor and love,” she said. “Take care of it and each other. Be mindful of what’s hurtful and hateful. If you see something hateful or hurtful on the Rock, say something and/or enlist the help of others to paint over it.”

In December, WATE 6 On Your Side talked to a professor of law at Lincoln Memorial University, Akram Faizer, who says the university ultimately has control of the Rock.

“The university doesn’t have to allow speech there, but since it does allow speech there, it can’t discriminate on the basis of the speech,” said Faizer.

Students across campus are upset by the incidents, but are remaining positive. Many are taking a stand like UTK student Aleah Vassell.

“Right now all I can do is do a call of action to the students, and we’re working on the rules of the Rock and seeing what we can do to further push that action,” said Vassell.

“When they see something written on the Rock, they don’t have to wait for the university to take a stance on it. They have the ability, the right, we all do. To make that message something we all like. If you see something you don’t like, we can change it,” said Student Body President Morgan Hartgrove.

Members of the UTK Student Government Association say they’ve already been working to fix the issue. Student Body Vice President Michael Curtis said that students don’t even have to be involved on campus to make a difference.

“How can we, as student leaders, even if I’m not involved in an organization or even if I’m not on campus a lot, how can I increase the conversation and spread my ideals in a respectful manner and also spread that love and stability also?” Curtis said.

The full statement reads as follows:

In the past month, our Rock has been painted several times by a self-described racial separatist group. At the core of their beliefs are racial segregation, prejudice, bigotry, and exclusion. I know many of you have been offended by their presence on our campus and what they have written on our Rock. Please know I share your sentiments entirely. I find their values and teachings despicable, hateful, divisive, and incendiary, and as I have said before, they are completely at odds with our Volunteer values and ethics.

Across the country, white supremacist groups are targeting colleges and universities, hoping to promote their beliefs and recruit members. Groups like the one that has been writing on our Rock have been described as being closely aligned with neo-Nazis and other hardline racist organizations. They are coming to our campuses precisely because of our commitment to inclusion and our mission to promote free speech.

Even though the First Amendment to the Constitution protects hate speech, that does not mean we must remain silent about it. In fact, we have a responsibility to condemn what we know is wrong. Hate is wrong. Racism is wrong. Advocating for the exclusion of all but one race is clearly wrong.

So I encourage all of you to be guardians of our campus. Protect it and make it a symbol of what you honor and love. Take care of it and each other. Be mindful of what’s hurtful and hateful. If you see something hateful or hurtful on the Rock, say something and/or enlist the help of others to paint over it.

If your classmates, colleagues, or friends feel vulnerable or targeted, reach out to them and to us. Support them. Make sure they know they are valued and protected. Kindness matters. Words matter. Support matters.

This is our campus and our community. It’s on us—all of us—to make it our University of Tennessee. We will not stand by and let those words and symbols define us. We will be defined by our stance against words, actions, and deeds that demean, threaten, divide, and harm our campus community. Here in Knoxville, in a place we call Rocky Top, we are all torchbearers for a just, welcoming, and safe campus. We are all Volunteers for life.