Today is Juneteenth: A day of celebration commemorating the day enslaved Americans became free in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union army general Gordon Granger read the federal orders to abolish slavery in Galveston, Texas. This holiday gives us pause - How is it possible that the people of Texas did not know they were free when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed more than two years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln? The answer: Incredibly limited communication at that time meant that the State of Texas did not receive word of the ending of slavery for more than two years.
Today, communication modalities are plentiful in the United States, and information that is broadcast online, in newspapers, and on television spreads in seconds, not in days or years. Yet, it appears that despite multiple modalities, people still fail to communicate with one another. Across our country, most people are engaging in civil discourse and exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and other freedoms that we often take for granted. Most understand that these Constitutionally protected rights are extended to all citizens, whether we agree with their beliefs or opinions or not, and that we must protect all individuals’ freedoms or risk losing our own. This leads me to a conversation that is unfolding now among many of our community members.
On Wednesday, June 17, the university received several complaints about the social media posts of an incoming freshman. The complaints included screenshots of content perceived as offensive, racist, and threatening. Many expressed their concerns for the safety of fellow students, their disgust for the content that devalued people of color, and their desire for the university to take action and show that we are living out our values.
Frankly, these complaints came as no surprise to me. I have watched with horror as students at universities across the country have posted content that devalues human life. In anticipation of receiving a similar complaint, the university put together a Social Media Complaint Review Task Force made up of Dr. Dave Stevens, Ms. Lisa-Marie Norris, Ms. Jennifer Holland, Ms. Beth Eppinger, and Ms. Rachel Putman. These individuals are tasked with determining if complaints we receive include current students or employees. If so, they review the content to determine if it should be referred for further investigation and a due process hearing. If the content is protected free speech, they, and the university are not allowed to take action.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, multiple individuals made complaints regarding the same content through private messages to the @UAFS social media accounts. Those complaints were forwarded to the Social Media Complaint Review Task Force. The members indicated that there was particular concern about a post that caused many individuals to be fearful of student safety when the student stated that if protesters stood in the street, in the way of her vehicle, she would hit them. Dr. Stevens and I contacted the University of Arkansas System General Counsel and reviewed the content of the post. It was determined that while the posts may be offensive and show clear inconsistencies with our core values, we had no legal recourse due to the First Amendment’s protection of Freedom of Speech. In order to take any further disciplinary action through our Student Code of Conduct, the content would have to constitute a “true threat” in the eyes of the law. In essence, because the post did not identify a particular protest that was being held or target a particular individual, the post was considered rhetorical hyperbole, not a true threat.
As a public university, employees of UAFS are not only are required to uphold the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but we have a duty to do so. Throughout the decades, a variety of free speech cases have been tried in courts of law. The rulings in those cases have consistently provided broad protections allowing individuals to proclaim their opinions on controversial and political topics, sometimes in incredibly offensive ways. The case law emphasizes the fact that even what you or I may consider hate speech is still protected.
As your chancellor, I know there may be times when I will be called upon to protect speech that is in conflict with my personal values or our core values as a university. In those cases, it is incredibly challenging to do what is legally required while doing what is right for the university. Individuals may have very different opinions, and though we expect them to communicate those opinions respectfully, failing to do so and creating offensive or racist content does not give the university grounds to take action under the law. At the end of this email, you will find citations of court cases and information about this legal protection.
In a time when our institution hopes to stand in solidarity with our Black students, faculty, and staff, it is incredibly difficult to hear that the university cannot take action as it pertains to posts that show such disrespect or disregard for members of the community. I cannot fathom why anyone would post content on social media that concerns and angers future classmates and UAFS community members. As I said in a previous message: We have freedom of speech, but we are not free from the consequences of our speech. I am obligated to uphold the right of the individual to post this material, but I do not have to respect or reward it. Our core value of inclusion means that we are open to all students, no matter their opinions or ways of expressing them.
Words matter, Lions. When given an option, please choose words that show care, compassion, and respect, not words that divide and devalue others—debate ideas, not people.
For additional information, please review these sources:
UAFS Student Handbook, page 17: https://campuslife.uafs.edu/student-handbook
The First Amendment Encyclopedia: https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/encyclopedia/topic/18/legal-terms-and-concepts-related-to-speech-press-assembly-or-petition
Constitution of the State of Arkansas: https://advance.lexis.com/container?config=0145JAA3MTdkMDQ2Mi01Yjg3LTQ5YjUtOTM2NS05MzE5ZjhjNGY5N2MKAFBvZENhdGFsb2cWtateMur7cOlHYN8TgmNk&crid=2ef68e30-7cd6-42b1-89a4-057f9eb94083
Terisa C. Riley, Ph.D.