Police: Racist photo allegedly involving 2 Utah high school students protected by freedom of speech

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HURRICANE — Almost two weeks after police opened an investigation into what they called a "racially insensitive" photo that was posted on social media, they concluded the photo is protected as freedom of speech.

"Although we all agree the photograph was abhorrent and should never have been taken and posted to social media, it is still protected as freedom of speech," says a Hurricane Police Department statement released Wednesday.

The photo, which surfaced on social media around May 17 and was sent to KSL TV, shows two people who appear to be wearing partial blackface makeup while another person stands behind them wearing a face covering what appears to be an imitation of a KKK hood. The photo caption contained a racial slur.

Hurricane police spoke with the FBI, as well as city and county prosecutors to decide the post was constitutionally protected under the first amendment, according to the police statement.

No criminal charges were filed against anyone involved in the incident and the investigation is closed, the statement continued. Police also said they determined the social media post was not directed at any individual and "there was no intention of harming anyone."

The photo involved two Washington County School District students and a non-student adult, according to an earlier statement from school district director of communications Steven Dunham.

“Words of disgust and sadness are insufficient to describe our feelings regarding the image that was brought to our attention the evening of May 16,” the statement says. “This repulsive photo does not represent the concern, love and care of Washington County School District.” The incident depicted in the photo did not take place on school grounds or during school hours, Dunham said. He did not know how far the photo spread or how many people saw it. KSL has chosen not to publish the photo along with this story.

The students were disciplined immediately when the district learned of the photo, according to Dunham. He declined to elaborate on what discipline was taken, citing student privacy regulations. Dunham added that school district officials were consulting with legal counsel as they considered further administrative actions.

School officials were “sickened by the photo,” Dunham said, which he said depicted a “racist act.” He added that the alleged actions by two students do not represent the views of the thousands of students, staff and teachers in the district.

“We will teach of love, kindness and inclusion; of respect for the fellow human beings that share our neighborhoods, our communities and the hallways in our schools,” Dunham said in the statement. “We will remind students that there is absolutely no room for the intolerance and hatred displayed in this image.”

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with KSL.com who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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