September 30, 2016

September 30, 2016

CONTACT: ACLU-TN, 615-320-7142

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee issued the following statement in response to the recent incident at East Tennessee State University in which a barefoot man wearing a gorilla mask and overalls attempted to hand out bananas wrapped with nooses to Black Lives Matter protesters holding a peaceful march.

The following can be attributed to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee:

“The ACLU of Tennessee is disturbed by the recent attempt to disrupt a peaceful protest and provoke protesters through the use of such charged and painful racist symbols. The protesters are to be commended for their measured response to this act of bigotry.

We understand the deep community concerns expressed over this incident. In the face of today’s racially-polarized climate, it is incumbent on public universities to maintain a safe and equal learning environment for all students, regardless of race.

Lynchings terrorized millions of Blacks across the South for nearly a century. The noose, a symbol of this violent and bigoted history, flies in the face of our nation’s values and is best left in the past. While we are committed to defending the freedom of expression, we are equally committed to fighting vigorously for an end to racial polarization and the realization of racial justice and equality.

However, while the student in this instance clearly intended to mock and provoke people, from video of the incident he did not appear to be making a targeted threat or to be creating a real fear of bodily harm. Particularly in a public forum space where First Amendment protections are at their height, even this kind of contemptible racist speech is protected by the First Amendment.

But universities do not have to be passive in the face of controversial speech. We hope that any school faced with such a sensitive situation would see it as an opportunity for learning. We encourage the university to continue countering this offensive act with open dialogue on the racist history of lynchings, the racial divides splitting our nation, and the importance of the right to free expression under state law and the First Amendment. The best answer to hateful speech is always more speech.”