‘I stand by what I said’: KU student body president not backing down from controversial retweet

·5 min read

Niya McAdoo said she hasn’t been surprised by the backlash, some of it in viciously racist emails and social media, to her retweeting the phrase “happy friday everybody. Death to america” on Sept. 3.

“I think that the phrase, ‘Death to America,’ is a triggering phrase for people. Most people have seen that phrase being said by countries outside of the U.S.,” said McAdoo, a 23-year-old senior and KU’s new student body president. “In no way was that the intention... disrespect or call to violence to any specific group, veterans or military folks.

“But ultimately I stand by what I said. Because, to me, the America that I live in is not an America that supports me.”

Conservative social media jumped on her message. Radio host Todd Starnes wrote a story on his personal website. The Kansas City Star’s Michael Ryan published a column about McAdoo’s retweet.

“This, Jayhawk country, is your KU student body president,” Ryan opined.

The Student Senate is scheduled to take up a censure resolution next week. KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said that while McAdoo’s sentiments were constitutionally protected speech, he strongly disagreed.

“The opinions in the student’s post are protected by the First Amendment. In addition, KU is committed to its role as a marketplace of ideas – including ideas that some individuals find offensive,” Girod said.

“I understand and appreciate why many individuals have found the content of the student’s post offensive.”

McAdoo, originally from Columbia, Missouri, grew up in a bi-racial home — her mom is white and her dad is Black. She said she chose KU because she wanted to be close to home and she knew it was a good school. She’s majoring in visual art and African and African-American Studies.

She said among the reasons she wasn’t surprised by the backlash was because of this country’s history of condemning Black people and other people of color for speaking out.

“Any person of color who attempts to speak out or attempts to honestly give their opinion of this country and what this country stands for and what it’s done to our communities has received backlash, so it’s nothing new,” she said.

“There was no huge intention behind retweeting it....To me this country doesn’t stand for inclusion, it doesn’t stand for Black and Brown communities, it doesn’t stand for queer and trans communities. So this America that I currently live in, yes I want to see it waste away. Yes, I want to see it die.”

She added: “The Chancellor can talk about being disappointed by my statement all day, but I’m disappointed in the fact that I’m still being called a n---er.”

The Kansas Federation of College Republicans tweeted that McAdoo should resign immediately. She said she would not.

She also feels like she doesn’t owe an explanation, particularly to people who aren’t trying to understand her reality — and the reality Black people face.

“You can read about these things in books and articles,” McAdoo said. “It’s not that these people are uneducated about racism, they know about it, they’ve read about it. These people are racist because they choose to be. Nothing I say is going to change that.”

University Response

Conservative columnists pointed to McAdoo’s social media posts as evidence the University of Kansas and other campuses are breeding hatred of America. They pushed KU to take a stronger stance against it.

But officials stopped short of condemning or punishing her.

Harrison-Lee said McAdoo’s post didn’t demonstrate “the type of productive dialogue we hope to encourage on our university campuses” but that any desire for civility could not outweigh freedom of expression.

Genelle Belmas, a first amendment law professor at the University of Kansas journalism school, said KU was placed in a tough situation responding to the outrage. Do nothing, she said, and members of the public would be angry. Punish McAdoo, and they’d be accused of violating her right to free expression.

“I hope against hope that they do not come down in some way against this student,” Belmas said.

“We have a responsibility to make sure KU has a good face but also to make sure she is protected.”

Belmas said McAdoo could be censured for her speech by her fellow student senators but should not face discipline from the University unless she violated a policy related to university-affiliated social media accounts.

Every few years, Belmas said, political outrage would be directed at the University over the speech of student or faculty.

In 2018, Republican political candidates attacked the University for allowing an art exhibit of a defaced flag to fly above a building. A professor received death threats for posting on Twitter that the NRA had blood on their hands following the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

The University’s response to such conduct, she said, has been hit-and-miss. Following McAdoo’s tweet, Belmas said the university acted appropriately. But in the prior events, Belmas believed the university suppressed speech by moving the art exhibit and suspending the professor who criticized the NRA.

“We have as educators but also as students and as graduate students and everyone who associates with the university a duty to make sure that ideas are challenged and it’s always better to challenge the idea than to simply chill the speech so the speech isn’t there whatsoever,” said Harrison Rosenthal a joint PHD and Law student at KU who serves as vice chair of KU’s graduate student advisory board.

McAdoo’s said that amid all the blowback, criticism and racist insults she’s also received messages of support from friends and from faculty members. She also doesn’t want Black and Brown people to stop fighting and advocating for true justice.

“I urge people to continue speaking up. I urge people to be their authentic selves. I urge them to keep advocating against these oppressive systems that do what they do,” she said. “And fight for these rights that we’re owed.”

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