Swastikas painted on the Rock at the University of Tennessee — again

Hand prints cover The Rock on UT's campus during a gathering on Feb. 9 to speak out against recent racist messages painted on it.

The Rock at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has been painted with "symbols and messages of hate" for the second time in as many weeks, the college announced Sunday.

The university released a statement saying The Rock was painted Saturday night "to communicate hate," and that the messages, "which are hurtful and threatening to many members of our community, do not represent our Volunteer values."

"The safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff is the university’s number one priority," the statement said. "The UT Police Department has increased surveillance, campus-wide, as a response to these incidents."

The statement did not elaborate about the content of the messages painted on The Rock. But a photo, posted to Facebook by Sandra Starr Marquis, showed that a painting of the Vols' mascot, Smokey, had been defaced with swastikas and other symbols used by neo-Nazi groups.

Repeat offense:University of Tennessee Chancellor Davis condemns swastika painted on the Rock

Ovi Kabir, president of the university's Student Government Association, tweeted a photo Saturday night showing that the swastikas had been covered up by another message that simply read, "Love."

"Signs of hate & bigotry have no place on our Rock or our campus," Kabir wrote. "Attempts to divide our community have & will always fall short because as Vols, we stand undivided against injustice."

The incident came less than two weeks after UT Knoxville Hillel, a group for Jewish students, held a vigil to honor the 11 worshippers killed when a gunman with a professed desire to "kill Jews" allegedly opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

At the vigil, The Rock was painted with a version of the Pittsburgh Steelers' logo that features the Star of David and the words "Stronger Than Hate" — an image that was shared widely after the shooting.

A symbol popping up on social media to show solidarity with the Oct. 27 synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh.

Two days later, some students noticed The Rock had been changed to say "Stronger Through Hate," and a swastika had been painted over the Star of David, according to Tara Bain, director of UT Knoxville Hillel. Student government representatives quickly re-painted the Rock to read, "Vol Means All."

Jewish students on campus "immediately felt unsafe," Bain said. "We're just very disheartened that this would happen."

University of Tennessee Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis

Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis released a statement saying, "I want to make it clear that the university does not condone these actions or other acts of intimidation or intolerance. No one should feel unsafe because of their religious beliefs."

Davis said he met with students, faculty, staff and members of the local Jewish community, and that they felt "targeted and intimidated by this incident."

The Rock, a massive boulder outside the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, has served for decades as an ever-changing message board self-policed by the campus community. Over the past year, however, the Rock has repeatedly been painted with white nationalist messages, spurring some to criticize the way the university has responded.

In December, someone wrote the words "white pride" on the boulder. The university's official Twitter account replied to one user by saying, "While we sometimes disagree with what appears on the Rock, those who paint it are protected by the First Amendment. We trust that the Volunteer community will take care of this quickly."

The tweet drew criticism and was later deleted, with the university saying it "didn’t convey our position about racism."

In January, then-Chancellor Beverly Davenport condemned the messages and the white nationalist group that appeared to be responsible. 

"I know many of you have been offended by their presence on our campus and what they have written on our Rock," she said. "Please know I share your sentiments entirely. I find their values and teachings despicable, hateful, divisive, and incendiary, and as I have said before, they are completely at odds with our Volunteer values and ethics."