Mississippi State University communication lecturer and Starkville Daily News Editor Ryan Phillips tweeted about a conservative student organization being set up on the Drill Field last week comparing the group to the KKK. Since the tweet, university officials have released statements in response to Phillips’ message.
The Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at MSU had set up a table and sign Wednesday stating, “Build the Wall.” A student tweeted a video of the table which Phillips retweeted with a comment on Twitter reading, “Hey the White Male Student Caucus holding a gathering. Hoods and burning crosses optional.”
Local YAF chapter president Jesse Watkins said to the comparison between the group and the KKK was unreasonable.
“We were extremely disappointed that he conflated us with the KKK,” Watkins said. “I think that it showed a lack of journalistic integrity, and any reasonable American wouldn't want to be attached to the KKK's despicable history and their platform of hatred.”
Watkins, who is a junior aerospace engineering student, also said Phillips did not approach or talk to any of the members set up on the Drill Field that day.
Kaleigh Williamson, a freshman business major and member of YAF, replied to Phillips’ tweet to explain how YAF was not made up of solely male members. She wrote, “Thank you for assuming that I’m a white male! You’re welcome to come to the table next time and not base your opinion off of one video on twitter.”
MSU President Mark Keenum issued a statement on Phillips' comments. Keenum explained how student organizations are allowed to exercise the First Amendment on campus.
“They (YAF) followed proper protocol and procedures in securing a space on the Drill Field to offer their viewpoint and discuss the immigration issue with other students. They were exercising their First Amendment and freedom of assembly rights, just as many student groups do nearly every day here on the MSU campus,” Keenum said. “I share your concerns about the inappropriate rhetoric Mr. Phillips used in engaging these students. He should have known better.”
Phillips responded to the situation as a whole and Keenum’s claim in an open letter published in the Starkville Daily News.
“As many people have already said, I should have known better ... and they're right. The only thing I will not apologize for is having an opinion and voicing it,” Phillips wrote.
In the letter, Phillips said his comments did not have any connection to the university or the newspaper for which he works, explaining how his opinion was posted on his personal Twitter account.
“The comments made from my personal Twitter account concerning the ... event on the Drill Field last week were in no way a reflection of any of the institutions I am involved with and while I understand that my comments offended certain sensibilities, it was presented from my personal Twitter account, which explicitly states that any opinions offered ‘are my own’ and are in no way associated with anyone else I may be affiliated with,” Phillips wrote.
Phillips also said he attempted to meet with members of YAF in person, but they “backed out at the last minute.”
Watkins said YAF encourages a dialogue between the organization and members of the university's community.
“We want to encourage open dialogue with students and teachers around campus, and we feel that conflating us with KKK members harms our ability to have civil discussions,” Watkins said. “We fear that comparing us to horribly evil groups allows people to justify violence against our group.”
In his letter, Phillips said he will not delete his tweets to serve as a reminder that what is posted on social media can have lasting consequences.
“I simply made a tasteless joke that fell flat for the people it was aimed at and others who felt they were targeted. But to apologize for having an opinion — regardless of how it may have come off — would signal the death of free speech in this country and I refuse to grease that slippery slope,” Phillips wrote.
Watkins said YAF does not want to ask Phillips to be silent, but rather to choose his words carefully.
“We don't want to silence Mr. Phillips, but we think that teachers of journalistic ethics should be cautious of what they say,” Watkins said. “Even if it is his personal Twitter, students and locals alike read his opinions, and we think that we are justified in defending our club from those kinds of statements.”
Watkins said he recently reached out to Department of Communication Head John Forde to speak about the situation. Forde did not respond to The Reflector’s inquiries about this conversation by the Friday edition deadline.
In a statement, MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter said Phillips’ comments were unsuitable.
“As a newspaper editor and as a part-time instructor in MSU’s Department of Communication, Mr. Phillips should be particularly sensitive to free speech and assembly rights – his own and those of others,” Salter stated. “His social media comments aimed at these students were highly inappropriate, inflammatory, and patently unfair and intolerant. On any given day, students and faculty with widely divergent social and political views intersect on our campus and it is incumbent on all parties to maintain decorum and mutual respect in the conduct of those activities. Mississippi State University stands behind our free speech and assembly policies.”
Watkins said he was happy to see the university stand behind students’ rights to free speech on campus.
“I was proud and happy to see that our school stood for free speech,” Watkins said. “Mississippi State stood for our right to stand on the Drill Field and express our opinions, and we are all extremely proud that we go to a school that will work with us. Some schools wouldn't stand by their students.”
CORRECTION: In the original online article, the article stated, "Since the tweet, university officials have released statements condoning Phillips' message." This is incorrect, as the university has condemned and criticized Phillips' behavior, and does not condone it.