UT community responds to white supremacist event: "Racism is not welcome on our campus"

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Officials with the University of Tennessee released statements and planned programs in response to a white supremacist event planned to take place on UT Knoxville's campus.

On Friday, UT administrators, along with students, faculty and other community members, gathered at the Rock on campus for the United at the Rock Against Racism event. The event began at 3:30 p.m. and included a hand painting session at the rock, followed by a planned ceremony at 5:30 p.m.

"This is a great reunion of people on campus to stand up against hate," UT Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer told Local 8 News at the gathering Friday. "There's no place for it in our society, I think this is super here today. It's a beautiful day, a lot of people turned out. The Rock has said a lot of things over the years, and this is probably most important to the community and the nation."

Students told Local 8 News crews at the gathering they felt the program at the Rock held special importance in the wake of the planned white supremacist event on campus.

"This is like an assault on my humanity," UT senior Geoffrey Hervey said. "Some people think people like me don't deserve to live non-violent, and that's dangerous, and my life is important to me and others like me."

UT officials continued an open dialogue with the UT and East Tennessee community about plans for the event throughout the week.

"I want to let you know that after consultation between UTPD and senior advisers, we have decided that this group will not be allowed to use McClung Museum due to safety and security concerns," UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport said in a statement Friday. "If they decide to gather on our campus anyway, they will be reassigned to Buehler Hall with security restrictions. UTPD has consulted with local, state, and federal law enforcement and assured me this location will provide the safest and most secure environment and minimize disruption to other activities on campus."

Joe DiPietro, president of the statewide University of Tennessee system, shared a message Thursday with all UT faculty and staff about the event.

“History is littered with the tragedy of unchecked hate, racism and violence. And at the University of Tennessee, we should bluntly call out what is wrong: Hate, racism and violence are wrong. There is no place for them on any of our campuses or university facilities," DiPietro said.

DiPietro clarified that the extremist group Traditionalist Workers Party was not invited to appear on campus, but followed UT's policy on use of campus facilities by speakers trying to hold an event.

“The ugly reality is, extremist groups are actively organizing, targeting colleges and universities in an attempt to be heard and to grow their ranks," DiPietro wrote. "And now, two of our own campuses—the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga—are being targeted."

DiPietro pointed out the Traditionalist Workers Party event at UT Knoxville and mentioned vandals at UT Chattanooga trying to cover Black History posters with images referencing Adolf Hitler.

“Now, let me be clear: Every campus and enterprise of the statewide University of Tennessee system respects and upholds the constitutionally protected First Amendment right to free speech which, history has shown, also can include ignorant, repulsive speech," DiPietro continued.

On Wednesday, University of Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport released her own statement titled "Racism Is Not Welcome on Our Campus," in response to the planned event.

Davenport addressed rumors that the group was invited to the campus by UT officials, saying, "they are not welcome."

"To those of you who have reached out to me through email, social media, or other means, please know I have heard you and share your concerns," she said in her statement. "Also, please know the safety and well-being of everyone on this campus is my primary concern."

She continued: "The message on our Rock yesterday imploring white supremacists to 'stay out' captures our collective sentiment. We do not want them here. But they appear intent on coming. We don't, however, have to give them an audience or the attention they seek."

Davenport said the university had been speaking daily with law enforcement, general counsel, relevant experts, higher education peers and other advisers to prepare for the event.

"As I have said before, hate is wrong," she said. "Racism is wrong. Advocating for the exclusion of all but one race is clearly wrong. Also, this group could not be more wrong.

"But I am asking you now to change the conversation away from what they stand for and toward what we stand for. We must reanimate our values, our beliefs, and our commitment to the common good. I repeatedly talk about kindness and respect and our responsibility to others because these are the virtues of a civil society and the foundations of democracy."

Davenport said the university had been planning special seminars, including campus experts and speakers from across the country, to discuss racism and hate groups, along with ways to combat them.

"I am urging you to educate yourselves so you can understand better where hatred grows, why it develops, and how we must stand against it. I urge you to reach out to your classmates and colleagues to have these discussions. This is a time for our campus to unite and support each other."