April 24, 2024

Faculty, community demand action against hate speech

Following several instances of hate speech on UT’s Rock, the campus community calls for change through legal limitations and reinstatement of a chief diversity officer

The University of Tennessee Faculty Senate discussed several measures to combat hate speech and divisiveness on campus during a full body meeting Monday, Nov. 19. Hate speech, including anti-Semitic imagery like swastikas, appeared on UT’s Rock after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last month.

In an email to the campus community, Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis said the images did “not represent our values and has no place on our campus.”

Photos courtesy of Beauvais Lyons

In the wake of what associate professor and Diveristy and Inclusion Committee chair Amber Roessner called a “second incident of abhorrent hate speech,” the committee proposed recommendations for enhanced monitoring of activities at the Rock, instructional time to discuss First Amendment and campus safety balance in courses of record, town hall forums moderated by First Amendment experts, the reinstatement of a chief officer for diversity by Jan. 1, 2019 and counsel for possible implementation of content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions.

Former Faculty Senate President Beauvais Lyons argues time, place and manner restrictions similar to those on Pedestrian Walkway remain necessary, legal and in accordance with the university’s Hilltopics Student Handbook.

“[Hate speech] messages were made by people wearing masks, typically at night,” Lyons said. “The university, while condemning these messages, has taken the position that hate speech is protected by both the First Amendment as well as state law. Increasingly, members of the campus community do not think that this is the correct legal or moral position for the university to take.”

Constitutional time, place and manner restrictions place content-neutral limits on when, where and how speech may appear to preserve institutional interest. Such limitations must provide alternative ways to communicate messages. The Faculty Senate’s proposal asks the university to seek counsel regarding limitations on wearing masks and painting at night.

“Those with ill-will will continue to have the same access to leave their mark on The Rock as those with good intentions,” Lyons said.

While hate messages might still appear, regulations could combat such rhetoric. Unauthorized paintings, as outlined in limitations, could be viewed as vandalism and acted upon by University of Tennessee police.

Though hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, messages like “Kill Jews” recently appearing on the Rock could be considered incitement of “imminent lawless action,” which has no constitutional protection.

Hilltopics defines imminent lawless action as “engaging in speech either orally or in writing that is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite…such action.”

The Faculty Senate recommends discussion with experts to determine the extent to which these messages meet constitutional criteria and how student conduct codes relate to the public forum.

“The constitutional test is whether the people who wrote the message had the ability to carry this out,” Lyons said. “It was agreed that without knowing who wrote the message, there is no way for the university to assess this threat.”

UT distinguished professor of law emeritus Dean Rivkin acknowledged security advisement might help the university, but dialogue remains an important method to combat hate speech.

“The campus leadership should step out front to promote [counter] dialogue,” Rivkin said. “The university should be an action- and thought-leader.”

Faculty Senate President Misty Anderson stressed the classroom’s role in discussing issues of hate in the community and urged professors to take time out of class to discuss issues of hate and free speech.

“I want professors to be transparent with their students and to approach the difficult dialogue about what we do next with compassion and clarity,” Anderson said. She maintained that students should lead in the discussion of freedom of speech because “the Rock is for them.”

Friday morning, an explicit message appeared on the Rock against the Nazi rhetoric.

With heated rhetoric increasing on both sides, Faculty Senate seeks change by reinstating a chief diversity officer to solidify the university’s mission to foster a safe environment for all people.

“What has become clear to me is that we need a bold action that will assure everyone in our community and especially the most vulnerable who have been targeted by hate speech, vandalism and threats,” Anderson said. “People need to know that UT’s campus stands ready to make changes and that it stands with them. That’s why our Diversity and Inclusion committee, our Executive Council and others are advocating for a Chief Diversity Officer, which would demonstrate that commitment and consolidate currently scattered efforts.”

Community members like recently elected State Rep. Gloria Johnson also call for the instatement of a chief diversity officer. Johnson said “The horrific, inciteful, hate speech posted on the Rock at UTK has to be addressed now.”

The Senate’s resolution to propose appointment of an interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity and subsequent national search passed Monday night. Roessner and the Faculty Senate hope Chancellor Davis and Interim UT System President Randy Boyd will consider the measure.

“If Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis and incoming President Randy Boyd follow this recommendation, it would be an important first step for fostering a culture of inclusivity on this campus,” Roessner said.

Faculty Senate continues to work with administration to create a more inclusive environment. University officials invite the campus community to paint the Rock Dec. 5 at 9:00 a.m. in solidarity with all Vols.

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