University of Tennessee officials condemn "white pride" hate speech on campus

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- University of Tennessee Chancellor Beverly Davenport responded to controversy over free speech after students said someone spray painted "White Pride" on the rock.

"It's troubling," student McKinley Merritt said. "It was like a scary moment for me to see something like that."

Students said what's supposed to be used as a means of self expression on campus has gone too far.

"You can't change stupid over night," student Aleah Vassell said. "You can't really change it at all."

Chancellor Davenport said she was trying to right the wrong in a statement she released Friday. It said, in part, "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. "

Vassell met with Chancellor Davenport minutes after the statement went public.

"I realized we are on the same page," Vassell said. "Chancellor Davenport is looking out for all of her student, and it was nice to hear that in person."

Concerns about the hate speech have been raised for more than a month.

"That's a big statement, not just towards the black community on campus, but towards anyone who has ever felt demonized by any other group of people," Merritt said.

Merritt showed Local 8 News where she tweeted her concerns to the official UT Twitter account in December saying, "This was seen on the rock approx 30 minutes ago and is not okay."

UT responded by saying, in part, "While we sometimes disagree with what appears on the rock, those who paint it are protected by the First Amendment."

"It didn't condemn the students that did the act, it just was kind of neutral to the entire situation," Merritt said.

Merritt said the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences had a more pointed response.

In an email to students and staff in December, Theresa Lee wrote, in part, "We value respectful and civil discourse and the exchange of ideas between individuals or groups, but do not equate that freedom with anonymous attacks on others via graffiti."

Students admitted change takes time, but they said the first step in making a difference is speaking up

"Speak up when things like this happen," Merritt said.