Free Speech on the Rock

Students plastered the Rock with signs reading "What is Free Speech" and "Silence is Compliance" Tuesday, Nov. 20. 

An open letter of concern has spread across campus in reaction to the latest speech on the Rock.

Various administration have renounced the actions at the Rock, with the open letter written by professor of law Robert Blitt being the latest. The letter is a Google Form being passed around by faculty and staff and signed by community members who “recognize the need to go further.”

Going further, according to the letter, means doing more than Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis's expression of disappointment and response that “the university does not condone these actions or other acts of intimidation or intolerance.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 470 faculty and staff members have signed the letter in recognition of going further to unequivocally condemn incidents at the Rock and stand in solidarity with students who feel threatened by the actions.

Faculty and staff are more likely to interact with students on a day-to-day basis, which gave Blitt more motivation to allow faculty and staff to sign off on a letter of their own.

“They’re here every day,” Blitt said. “Faculty and staff are really kind of the face of the university as it were for students.”

I recognize now that some people might feel uncomfortable…speaking out against the administration or about the administration,” Blitt added. “For whatever it’s worth, there are staff that have signed off on the letter and I think that’s a testament of how strongly they feel about the issue.”

What's happened at the Rock

Hillel, a Jewish student organization, gathered at the Rock on the evening of Oct. 31 to paint the Rock in solidarity with those affected by the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue the previous week. The message read “Stronger than Hate” and was complemented with the Star of David.

Around 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 2, the message was replaced with “Stronger through Hate” and the Star of David was covered with a swastika.

Volunteer community members painted over the message with “Vol Means All” and orange hearts.

“I am disappointed and deeply concerned, as are many members of our university community, that this symbol of hate appeared on one of our iconic campus landmarks,” Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis said in a campus-wide email on Nov. 9. “I want to make it clear that the university does not condone these actions or other acts of intimidation or intolerance. No one should feel unsafe because of their religious beliefs.”

Also on Nov. 9, junior studying journalism and electronic media Kate Luffman painted the Rock with Smokey in a military cap and dog tags in honor of Veteran's Day weekend.

Following the game against Kentucky, the Rock was once again met with swastikas and other markings and was painted over shortly after with “Love.”

“Like all hateful and menacing communications, these forms of expression are intended to intimidate and sow fear,” the letter said. “This intention is more palpable when it singles out vulnerable or marginalized minority groups.”

“And it is rendered even more stark coming in the wake of the anti-Semitic massacre of eleven Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue,” the letter added.

Letter addresses freedom of speech, administrative response

The open letter also recognizes free speech and academic freedom as “central to a vibrant campus,” but condemns the expressions because of their harm rather than ability to genuinely contribute to the free marketplace of ideas.

“Such forms of expression have a chilling effect on the rights and freedoms of others, particularly when directed against minority or marginalized groups,” the letter said.

Blitt isn't ready to forfeit freedom of expression by limiting free speech, but instead finds that the problems lies within the “nuisance response” of the administration. Using the University of Michigan as an example, Blitt believes their response of condemnation and legal action after African American students were targeted by graffiti and hateful messages is how the university should have responded to the actions at the Rock.

“In my view, the university took a real knee-jerk reaction,” Blitt said. “They didn’t even take a reaction at all because they didn’t write a statement after the second incident.”

“The administration has the space to contemplate action, even take action, to demonstrate a commitment to these ideas that underpin the university- diversity, inclusion,” Blitt added.

Blitt also found Davis's response to the second incident as problematic, as almost a week later Davis's cabinet sent a message regarding the incidents and ways to move forward.

Updated periodically, the letter includes more information at its conclusion, with the signatories having been published by the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Another update on the letter comes from a Faculty Senate meeting held with Davis on Monday. Davis was asked why his statement failed to condemn and only decided to “not condone” the incidents at the Rock.

“I was told at a young age that there were only two people who can condemn and those were judges and God, so I have never condemned anyone,” Davis replied.

For Blitt, the response wasn't what he was hoping for.

“That was a deeply problematic response from my perspective and I think for a number of people that were in the room at the time,” Blitt said.

Blitt intends to take the signed faculty and staff letter before the Chancellor once it is closed.

The letter is currently open only to faculty and staff signatories, but Blitt encourages students to write their own open letter if they also feel the administrative response was inadequate.

“I’m happy for them to use this letter as a template if they want to,” Blitt said. “(The letter) was to tell students that we as faculty and staff are here for them and not put that heavy lifting on them to also turn to the administration.”

At the end of the day, Blitt said, the letter was presented to show solidarity with students and to be a support system.

“We all deserve a campus where hatred finds no purchase or succor,” the letter concluded. “A place that not only is safe, but feels safe.”

“In this spirit of safety and inclusion, our doors are open to you and we stand together with you.”

The full letter can be found here

Campus News Editor Cat Trieu contributed to this article. 

UT Sponsored Content