Following blackface photo, legal expert urges caution on censoring students

Local News
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In a letter, Wednesday, University of Tennessee at Knoxville Chancellor Wayne Davis, explained his administration would take action following outrage from a Snapchat photo of a couple of UT students in blackface.

The letter said the changes were “not just in response to specific incidents but in an effort to address the underlying issues that allow them to happen.” 

The changes include more cultural competency training for students and staff, as well as forming a committee to look at the current code of conduct, and possibly making adjustments. 

Their current policy bans harm to others and harassment but does not contain the words “race, racism or discrimination.” It also has a clause acknowledging the First Amendment rights of students, including offensive language. 

Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law Professor Stewart Harris feels it would be in violation of a student or faculty members constitutional right to punish, or expel, anyone for hate speech on campus.

“It’s the First Amendment’s job to protect the speech we hate. Popular speech doesn’t need any protection. It’s unpopular speech it protects,” he said. 

An exception to that rule is when a “true threat” is determined, he explained.

He applauds the university for condemning the photo, holding the meetings and rallies and called them the “appropriate response.” 

Many at a meeting Wednesday, before the Chancellor’s announcement, commented they felt the campus frequently condemns awful actions or words but does little to curb the problem.

But, Harris explains because they’re taxpayer-funded, public institutions, college administrations’ hands are really tied on this issue. 

Another aspect of the blackface photo is the caption making fun of affirmative action and the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Harris says while we may find it racist or offensive, in the legal world it could be protected political speech. Basically, the dig on affirmative action could be seen as a negative stance on affirmative action, while African American students feel undercut by their presence on campus and minority status. 

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