The University of Montana announced Wednesday in its weekly newsletter that no disciplinary action will be taken against a UM student who was pictured with a racist sign, citing the “protected” nature of the speech, “even if it is racist and hateful.” 

The announcement comes after a photo began circulating on social media over a week ago of two men with what appeared to be a prom sign that read, “If I was Black I’d be picking cotton, but since I’m white I’m picking you for prom.” The picture of Jacob Metzger, a UM student, and another man with the sign led to backlash from UM students and the creation of a petition calling on them to be expelled if they attended the University. 

“As a public institution UM cannot take any sort of actions that punish students or violate their protections under the First Amendment, so despite this speech being hateful and racist it’s still speech that’s protected in the First Amendment,” Dave Kuntz, the director of strategic communications at the University of Montana, said. 

Prior to the announcement, Matthew Knight, a sophomore at UM, created a petition on April 9, calling for the expulsion of the two men in the photograph if they were UM students. The petition initially called for the University to suspend the possible students, but Knight said after reading several comments of signees lobbying for expulsion rather than just disciplinary action he changed the petition. 

Knight said it's hard to know the racist image is from the community. 

“I think that one of the things that’s been really difficult for a lot of the people in this community, this last week, is that when we see abhorrent things on the internet it's easy to try to convince ourselves that those things only exist in abhorrent places or bygone eras,” he said. “But to see an image like that circulated around, taking place in our community, in our town, is pretty sobering.”

Kuntz said the petition is proof of what the UM community values. 

“I think this petition’s further proof that the University of Montana is a welcoming place that celebrates diversity, that promotes inclusion and that fights back against racism,” Kuntz said. 

Kuntz said UM is leading the state in its efforts with diversity and inclusion, citing efforts like the University’s Diversity Advisory Council, its annual DiverseU event and the recent creation of a council of student athletes advocating against injustice, but he also acknowledged the incident is a reminder of the work UM still has to do. 

Stephen Clement, a second year student at UM, is one of over 2,400 people who’ve signed the petition. He said he signed the petition when it was calling on the possible students to be suspended. Clement said the incident is an example of privilege. 

“Me, as a white member of the community, I can’t speak to the nuances of how this affects various people of color in the community,” Clement said. “I’m not the right person to be speaking to that, but I can still recognize it, and they should be able to recognize how much of a privilege it is to look past the impacts of their actions, to live in a state of willful ignorance.”

Knight changed the petition after the University’s announcement on Wednesday. The petition’s stated purpose now is to condemn Metzger. 

Knight said while he understands the legal bounds of what the University can do, he thinks the University should make its explanation of why it can’t discipline Metzger more clear and public to the community. 

Kuntz said the University doesn’t think the lack of disciplinary action will encourage similar incidents because of the vast majority of students who spoke out against the picture and the “swift response for action.” He also said students can be punished if they violate UM’s policy on Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation. 

The policy includes a section that says students can be punished for discriminatory harassment “that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a reasonable person’s participation in a University Program or Activity.”