Colorado State University is facing backlash over its refusal to punish a group of students who posed in blackface in a photo that circulated across social media.
In a letter to the campus community, university president Joyce McConnell said the image had caused a “great deal of pain” and ran counter to CSU’s values by creating a potentially “hostile” environment for nonwhite students. In the same breath, however, McConnell pointed to students’ First Amendment rights and said that social media posts are outside the school’s jurisdiction.
“Our community members — students, faculty and staff — can generally post what they wish to post on their personal online accounts in accordance with their First Amendment rights,” she wrote. “This recent post runs counter to our principles of community, but it does not violate any CSU rule or regulation, and the First Amendment prohibits the university from taking any punitive action against those in the photo.”
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment broadly prohibits government censure of speech and expression, including offensive speech.
The announcement comes just days after the racist photo made its rounds online, sparking swift backlash. The image, posted to Snapchat, shows four unnamed white students posing with a black substance, possibly a skincare mask, covering their faces and the caption “Wakanda Forevaa,” a reference to the fictional world in Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie and comics.
“Because of the long [and] ugly history of blackface in America, this photo has caused a great deal of pain to members of our community,” McConnell added. “We have heard from many of you—and we hear you. Moreover, we respect your voices.”
Students on campus don’t feel that way, however. CSU freshman Shierinna Walker, who’s biracial, said she wishes the university would do more to address the situation.
“The kids had no consequences,” Walker told FOX 31 Denver, accusing the offending students of mocking Black culture. “It’s basically encouraging racism.”
“As a minority on campus, I don’t feel supported here,” she added.
A fellow freshman named Taylor agreed that the practice of blackface “has been really offensive to other people” and that students’ outrage over it is “incredibly valid.”
In her statement, McConnell encouraged students to use this incident as an opportunity to learn, adding that the university has asked faculty and staff to contribute their wisdom on issues of race to spark a larger conversation.
“We are all here at CSU to learn, and we believe that this can be a powerful learning moment that leads to healing and reconciliation,” she concluded. “We urge every member of our community to listen, and to hear, all the voices that make up this wonderful, diverse campus family so we can move forward together, stronger than ever.”
The blackface post is the latest in a string of racially charged incidents that have rocked the Colorado campus, including an instance in 2017 where a paper noose was found in an on-campus dorm.
The university said it will share more details in the coming weeks about events planned to focus on reconciliation and togetherness.
Watch more in the video below.