MSU professor compares student group to KKK

A Mississippi State journalism professor is under fire for tweets aimed at a conservative student-led group on campus.

Last week, the MSU chapter of the ‘Young Americans for Freedom’ was holding a “Build the Wall” event on campus when ‘Journalism Ethics’ professor and editor of the Starkville Daily News Ryan Phillips posted a tweet seemingly comparing the group to the KKK.

“Hey the White Male Student Caucus holding a gathering. Hoods and burning crosses optional,” Phillips’ tweet said. 

In a tweet responding to the founder of the MSU YAF chapter Jesse Watkins, Phillips went on to call the organization “toxic”.

“Nah I think your organization’s historical track record of supporting Dixiecrats, segregationists and being cozy with Strom Thurmond & Jeff Sessions (now Trump) gives me some idea. I don’t agree with your toxic brand of politics and I’ll exercise my right to speak against it,” Phillips replied. 

Mississippi State President Mark Keenum and Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter released statements condemning Phillips’ rhetoric.

“[The 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. I share your concerns about the inappropriate rhetoric Mr. Phillips used in engaging these students. He should have known better.President Mark Keenum

“Clearly, the students in the Young Americans for Freedom group were engaged in lawful activities that were within university guidelines. 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. 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” – CCO Sid Salter

Neither commented on Phillips’ employment status with Mississippi State. After the tweets went viral, the professor made his account private. 

Phillips has since attempted to walk back his comments in an op-ed titled “An open letter to Young Americans for Freedom” in the Starkville Daily News, claiming that his tweet was rooted in hyperbole and sarcasm.

“Like most people on Twitter, I have opinions and not all of them are popular. And I operate in the world of hyperbole and sarcasm, so what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.”

Later in the op-ed, Phillips offered an apology of sorts.

“I apologize to any of the institutions that my actions reflected poorly on and I apologize for inadvertently blurring the lines that separate what I believe personally and what I do professionally on my social media, which I will be more sensitive to in the future as a result of this incident.

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’ full op-ed can be read below:

“Have you ever said something dumb or insensitive on social media that was then broadcast to millions of others without complete context? If so, meet the newest member of your club: Me.

Like most people on Twitter, I have opinions and not all of them are popular. And I operate in the world of hyperbole and sarcasm, so what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

The comments made from my personal Twitter account concerning the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom’s “Build the Wall” 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.  

Is that a proper defense for being disrespectful? Not in the least. But I just wanted to add clarity since the institutions I’m affiliated with were pulled into the fray by no fault of their own.

I apologize to any of the institutions that my actions reflected poorly on and I apologize for inadvertently blurring the lines that separate what I believe personally and what I do professionally on my social media, which I will be more sensitive to in the future as a result of this incident.

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.

But as a result, I’m thankful to now have a heightened awareness of what my role in the community is, which contradicts the validity of my previous point in thinking I was making the statements from an explicitly personal point of view.

Out of my humility in not thinking my opinion would garner anything more than a couple of likes and retweets, I was sorely mistaken. But I have a bigger megaphone than most, at least locally, and it’s important that I remember that.

Minutes after I posted the first tweet, I made multiple attempts to request a meeting with the group, to which they initially agreed and then backed out at the last minute, before I managed to get in touch with them to set up another meeting at a different time.

At first, I had it made up in my mind that I would apologize and offer to delete any of my offensive tweets once I got to know the local YAF folks. I fully expected to be the one to admit fault, but my efforts to reconcile were not viewed as worthwhile to a group with a track record of scorched-earth attacks on those who criticize them.

It was also said in an online story that the local YAF chapter talked among themselves and decided to not meet with me because there was nothing to gain and more to lose, which wasn’t what I was told. Rather, I was told by the president of the local chapter that he would have to reschedule because of his busy school schedule and that the local MSU chapter of the organization had “nothing” to do with the op-ed written about me and was still willing to entertain a face-to-face dialogue.

It is my sincere hope that the organization will address this misrepresentation of our engagement.

I also doubled-down on my efforts to set up a meeting after their national leadership, who ran a blistering op-ed taking aim at me and after the local chapter president misrepresented our interaction to the Daily Wire.

I hope my sincerity to still meet in person shows my commitment to rectifying this situation while looking ahead to foster a more respectful dialogue with the local chapter apart from my isolated comments and the vitriolic and politically-slanted retort from the YAF and its companion outlets.

The president of the national organization himself lit into me in a spirited Twitter tirade and then deleted his comments, which comes as no surprise to me. Did I deserve it? In their eyes I’m sure I did, but as insensitive as I might have been, I take full ownership of my actions and will face the repercussions, whatever they might be.

And when discussing the current state of media, a reporter from the conservative outlet the Daily Wire reached out to me for comment with only three questions, all of which were geared toward getting me to tuck my tail between my legs and admit fault — none of which even halfway attempted to make sense of the issue and why I was opposed to it.

I chose and am choosing not to comment to the Daily Wire out of caution that my words would be distorted and used to forward a political agenda. And after reading the story, that would have almost certainly been the case.

But I did have prior familiarity with YAF’s national stance on certain issues in tandem with my own personal skepticism toward what I viewed as a lack of diversity within the YAF, which pushes a platform I don’t agree with personally or politically.

I believe as a member of my community, apart from any roles I occupy outside of being an American, that there is no room for fear mongering regarding immigration, especially in a historically-divided state where much bigger issues persist such as access to health care and high-speed internet.

These are the talking points that have a real impact on the day-to-day lives of Mississippians. And once again, that’s my opinion and not one that I think the local chapter of the YAF or the national chapter for that matter, have addressed, even after I openly asked them about it.

I didn’t threaten anyone, I didn’t promote violence, and I didn’t infringe on YAF’s right to free speech. I also will not be retracting the tweets, because I want them to serve as a reminder to myself and others that what is said on social media has tangible consequences and it is important to own our beliefs if we feel strongly enough to leverage them against the personal sensibilities of others.

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.

But do I apologize for the way I presented my opinion? Absolutely. I don’t think there is any question that if I could go back, I would have still criticized the group’s “Build the Wall” event, but with a less hyperbolic and more rational approach. That was my mistake.

The concept of free speech has been thrown around a lot with respect to this issue and I will say I am surprised that while so many tout this organization’s right to speak freely on issues in a public place, it appears that I will not be granted the same benefit of the doubt by the YAF and others as it relates to my opinions on social media.

But it hurts to be called intolerant when, in my mind, I viewed myself as taking a stance against the intolerance being propagated by an openly divisive group in my community. And at the end of the day, both I and the YAF have the right to speak out and I will support their right to do so until my dying breath.

I do, however, hope in the future to develop a positive working relationship with this organization and hope we can find some common ground. After talking to the local student chapter of YAF multiple times, I have no doubt we will one day shake hands.

This whole thing starts and stops with me and I will work tirelessly to ensure that I am more measured and respectful the next time I’m openly critical of a group or issue.”