Seaton: Rocky Top Crumbles Under Cries of Hate Speech

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville is home to a unique monument called “the Rock.” Tradition holds that anyone can paint any message they like on the boulder. That tradition died Thursday when someone offended a student with their message.

Aleah Vassell noticed someone painted the Rock with the words “White Pride” and immediately told a classmate, McKinley Merritt. Ms. Merritt saw the offensive painting, took a picture of it, and twitted it to the University of Tennessee’s main account.

@UTKnoxville this was seen on the rock approx 30 minutes ago and is not okay.

Fortunately an adult with reason and a grasp of what “free speech” means saw the twit and responded with a perfectly logical, even handed message.

Hi McKinley. While we sometimes disagree with what appears on the Rock, those who paint it are protected by the First Amendment. We trust that the Volunteer community will take care of this quickly.

Regular readers, or those familiar with the state of free speech on most college campuses, will know this response didn’t satisfy McKinley at all.

Does this response cover someone’s ass while meanwhile (sic) this message is making students feel MORE unsafe? Stand up for ALL your students and condemn students when they have taken an action out of hate.

Cue the outrage mob, as outrage is the latest fashion trend.

UT’s official response to hate speech is “we sometimes disagree?” cc @ChancellorDav

Why is it that UT has staff sent over to paint over negative messages about the athletics department, but won’t paint over messages that empower racism? Hmm?

Faced with pressure and a need to keep students safe from harmful words, UT deleted their initial twit.

In a statement, the university said the tweet was deleted “because we felt like it didn’t convey our position about racism.”

“As Chancellor (Beverly) Davenport has said on numerous occasions, there’s no place at the University of Tennessee for racism, bigotry and prejudice,” the statement said.

There was no need for an additional statement. The twit was not out of line with the university’s position on racism. Yet when faced with the threat of angry woke social justice warriors, Rocky Top crumbled in a heap of intellectual cowardice.

Vassell and Merritt also made the false assumption students on campus painted the message. The Rock is free to anyone with as much as a Sharpie pen to write the message of their choosing and isn’t surrounded by barriers to keep outsiders from using it. Two drunk rednecks may have done this as a “hold my beer” gag.

Furthermore, two words on a boulder only make people feel unsafe if they are so fragile in their own minds that the phrase “white pride” is a threat to minorities attending the university. Those who piled on UT’s alleged rise of hate speech written on the Rock are no better. They think so little of other minorities who can walk past the Rock, see the words “White Pride,” and shrug.

As far as the University’s adults, they should be ashamed of their response to the outrage mobs. UT could have taken a stand in the free speech battle and held firm to the Rock’s tradition. Instead, they tucked their tails in cowardice and kowtowed to those who hold the belief that “hate speech” actually exists.

Vassell and Merritt’s parents deserve a refund. The school they chose to educate their children failed them in the most humiliating way possible. Instead of using this as a teachable moment to educate students on the concepts of free speech, the marketplace of ideas, and the First Amendment, UT caved.

People ask why those of us educated in the law continue to raise concerns about the state of free speech on college campuses. “It’s getting better,” some say. “Your concerns are getting redundant,” some retort. Instances like this are why we continue to sound the alarm. The problem’s not going away anytime soon. It’s still festering like a noxious pustule, ready to burst at any given moment.

What’s particularly disturbing about this instance is the compulsion of speech by people who are ignorant of the First Amendment. It wasn’t good enough for UT to take a principled stand on free speech. The University had to remove its even handed response on Twitter and send staff to paint the offending message away to make things right. When you let the lunatics run the asylum, you are no longer an institution of higher learning. You are babysitters coddling infantile minds masked as college students.

Our society is on the brink of becoming no better than the campus of Evergreen State or Wilfrid Laurier. If Chancellor Davenport is ready to have a conversation about “how to fix things” with regards to free speech, then “Good Ole Rocky Top” is no better than other universities that cave to unhinged student demands.

And UT becomes the next college on my list I’ll never send my kids to.

[Ed. Note: Chris picked this vid, and since it’s his post, I defer to his judgment. I, however, would have picked this one, because I really love the song.]

39 thoughts on “Seaton: Rocky Top Crumbles Under Cries of Hate Speech

  1. CLS


    Your deference is greatly appreciated, but you’re still my mean-ass editor.
    And I too love “Rocky Top,” but in the wake of this fiasco, UT doesn’t deserve to be called “Good” by any stretch.

    1. SHG Post author

      As my daughter once told me when she was very upset and I bought her a sundae, “anger is not a reason to waste good ice cream.”

  2. DaveL

    So let me get this straight:

    1. Anybody can paint any message they want on The Rock. I assume that must mean they can paint over the messages of others.

    2. Having “White Pride” show up on the rock is so offensive that refusing to paint over it is unacceptable.

    So why is it acceptable for the student in question to decline to paint over the message herself?

    1. CLS

      It’s acceptable for both Ms. Vassell and Ms. Merritt to decline to paint over the message. It’s acceptable for Ms. Merritt to inform the University she didn’t like seeing “White Pride” on the Rock.

      What is completely unacceptable and disgusting is compelling a university to remove a message people didn’t like, and the university removing their response because the social justice outrage mob spun it as not sufficient enough of a condemnation of racism.

      This is beyond silencing others. It is compelling people to say what you want them to say or face the dreaded “social consequences.” That’s horrendous for an institution of higher learning, and horrifying for our society as a whole.

      1. B. McLeod

        Of course, beyond the anti-speech angle, the bleating mod are also morons. It makes no sense that “black pride” is perfectly fine and hate-free, while “white pride” is inherently hateful and racist. These people haven’t got the sense God gave a goose.

          1. B. McLeod

            I don’t know that to be true. I am not so skilled as yet at reading minds that I can discern the intent of others beyond their words. Personally, I think there is much of value in my Scots ethnic heritage. That doesn’t mean that I hate black people or disrespect their heritage, and I don’t feel there is a basis to make impute such a meaning to more homogenized Caucasian mutts who profess a more generalized “white pride.” The intent of the message lies with the speaker, not what others graft onto it. At the core of the common law of defamation lies the presumption that a message which might have either offensive or inoffensive intent will be taken as inoffensive, absent actual proof that it was otherwise directed.

      2. Rick Caird

        I wonder what those two would say about “Black Pride” or “Black Lives Matter”. My suspicion is they would say nothing.

  3. Kathleen Casey

    Now I somehow have to get the hate words “White Pride” out of my head. It may take hours, days, weeks! And the words “Streisand Effect.”

      1. CLS

        Now you’ve gone and done it. I may have to visit the Rock myself and paint “I know a guy who has comfort llamas” on it, just to see if it starts another outrage mob.

      2. the other rob

        A llama once went on an extended rant at me, facing me and yelling at me for several minutes. It was at London Zoo, by Regent’s Park and all I said to provoke it was “miaow”.

        Llamas may be a poor choice for comfort animals.

  4. Richard Kopf


    How much would it take for me to get you to paint “Huskers” in red on the rock?*

    All the best.


    * I think we stole the Martinez kid but that doesn’t entitle you to be a hater.

      1. SHG Post author

        “But your honor, it wasn’t my choice. I did it pursuant to a court order.”

        “Oh, counsellor? Please hand up a copy of the order.”

        “Here’s my iPad, Judge. Click on the link…”

  5. ShelbyC

    I’m just waiting for people’s heads to explode when they figure out that the fight song’s lyrics glorify cop-killing.

    1. CLS

      While this completely strays from the subject of this post, I made a cursory scan of the lyrics to see if there was any sane explanation for your comment.

      There are none. The reference to missing strangers looking for a moonshine still has nothing to do with cops. Moonshiners would kill to protect their stills, law enforcement or layperson.

      If you’re going to project, please keep it to the subject of the post.

      1. REvers

        Nobody but cops would be looking for a still. People who are looking for moonshine will go to where it’s sold, and that’s not at the still.

  6. Robert

    The complaining students won’t care about the niceties of viewpoint discrimination until the university orders all of the “It’s not okay to be [x]” messages removed.

    1. CLS

      Which could very well happen, since now UT will be afraid to offend any student with mean, harmful words. Then Ms. Vassell and Ms. Merritt may realize the error of setting an outrage mob on Chancellor Davenport and the University.

      I say “may” because it’s becoming more and more clear students attending college fail miserably at actually learning anything for four years.

      1. Robert

        As SHG put it, it’s the problem of unprincipled positions.

        For example, at my school, the student groups that pontificated endlessly about increasing resources and procedural protections for the criminally accused were the same ones that screamed loudest for the head of George Zimmerman before Trayvon Martin’s blood was even dry.

        They undermine themselves.

  7. West

    You can tell who the racists are by imagining what would have happened if the words “Black Pride” had been painted on the rock.

    1. CLS

      Issues of racism aside, let’s take a look at a few other items painted on the Rock in recent memory.
      “Schiano Covered Up Child Rape At Penn State.”
      A picture of an elephant with a target on the center, with the phrase “Elephant Season: Fuck Lane Kiffin.”
      Numerous “Fuck Lane Kiffins,” “Lane Kiffin Sucks Cock,” etc.
      The number for the USC Athletic Department with the phrase “Leave Lane A Message”
      “Welcome To The Tennessee Browns”

      A case could be made that any of those statements, per Ms. Vassell and Ms. Merritt’s line of reasoning, could make students feel unsafe on campus. Yet no one took issues with any of those.

      It took two students getting offended and an outrage mob to force a university to tailor a message about racism to the mob’s liking. That’s nauseating.

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