The Rock at the University of Tennessee has often featured graffiti related to Volunteer sports and the general mood of the campus.
“Beat Florida,” “It’s Gameday” and other forms of student expression have decorated the 80-ton slab of Dolomite over the years.
Lately, though, racist graffiti has marred the popular stone.
The Traditionalist Worker Party tagged The Rock with neo-Nazi and white supremacist slogans in December, in one case painting over a sign welcoming new football coach Jeremy Pruitt to campus and in another marring a birthday message to a student.
The graffiti sparked student anger about how the school chose to respond to the racist message.
The university’s initial response was to tweet to reassure students the “Volunteer community” would take care of the graffiti quickly.
“While we sometimes disagree with what appears on the Rock, those who paint it are protected by the First Amendment,” the university said in a since-deleted tweet.
That didn’t satisfy the “Volunteer community” on Twitter.
“They may be protected by the first amendment, but what’s worse is that you, as a University, just condoned racism,” UT graduate Ryan Olson tweeted. “You said, “sometimes we disagree” (which is not disagreeing) rather than saying, “We do NOT agree with what is written on the rock” to a woman of color! Unacceptable”
The complaints and response go to the heart of how public institutions, churches and others respond when white supremacists choose their buildings and property as billboards for their message.
And, the responses have been handled differently across the country.
Holocaust deniers struck a synagogue in Seattle with graffiti in March. Rabbi Daniel Weiner, who oversees the synagogue, left the graffiti intact for everyone to see.
The synagogue erected a small sign in front reading: “Temple de Hirsch Sinai is aware of this graffiti. We are choosing to leave it exposed for the time being.”
A high school in Baltimore closed for the day earlier in December after racist graffiti was found and removed from school property.
Of course, there’s also the reverse idea. A man in Greely, Colorado, posted a sign that said “F--- Nazis” sign among his Christmas decorations. After it was stolen earlier this month, Joseph Ruibal and his son, Preston Ruibal, built a new one and put it back up.
It’s not the university’s first run-in with TWP. In September, the school removed flyers advocating white nationalist positions from an academic building.
"I can’t speculate on the 'what ifs' but we have a process for evaluating materials (that are compliant with our Literature Distribution policy) while ensuring that we uphold the First Amendment," University of Tennessee spokeswoman Karen Simsen told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
There are only a few certainties with the graffiti on The Rock, as long as the TWP remains active in East Tennessee, they’ll continue to mark up the iconic public billboard.
And, students will continue to demand that university officials deal with hate speech on campus.