TBA Law Blog

Posted by: William Haltom on May 29, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Jun 2009

Journal Name: June 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 6

I am pleased to report that the First Amendment is alive and well on Tennessee's college campuses. Students across the Volunteer State are vigorously exercising their Constitutional right to assemble and engage in free speech often directed toward fellow students at the University of Florida. And unlike the college students of my
generation, they are keeping their clothes on.

At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of May 1, a number of undergraduates at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville gathered at the Hodges Library, the main library on the campus. Within minutes, more young scholars arrived, and by midnight, over a thousand students had gathered in the lobby of the library in pursuit of knowledge and to prepare for their upcoming final exams.

The mass study group was not a scheduled campus event. It was an e-mail coordinated event that is referred to as a "flash mob" or "flash rave." This is an almost-spontaneous event that occurs when folks start sending out e-mails, text messages or "tweets," encouraging people to quickly assemble at some gathering point to perform some brief, often nebulously defined action, and then quickly disperse. It is sort of like "the wave" at Neyland Stadium. One or two football fans who have almost no interest in the game decide to stand up and throw their arms in the air, in the hopes that other bored football fans sitting next to them will also stand up and throw their arms in the air, and before you know it, 110,000 people will be paying no attention whatsoever to the football game as they will be anxiously awaiting the moment when the human tsunami crashes on their section, giving them the opportunity to once again stand up and throw their arms in the air. (Given how the Vols have played in recent years, engaging in an inane activity like "the wave" actually makes more sense than watching the game.)

A similar event occurred on the UT Knoxville campus on the first night in May, but this time at the library rather than the football stadium A couple of bored students sent text messages to their friends saying something like, "Let's head to the library now!" The friends who received this text message then sent similar text messages to their friends, and their friends sent similar text messages to their friends, and before you knew it, the lobby of Hodges Library was packed like Neyland is for a Florida game.

When the young scholars assembled at the library, they quickly organized a number of extracurricular activities, including body-surfing, singing a cappella off-key renditions of "Rocky Top," and chatting profanities at their fellow undergraduates at the University of Florida.

The flash mob or "rave" was telecast world-wide on YouTube (on a tape-delayed basis) so that the undergraduates at the University of Florida could hear the profane chants. The YouTube telecast also gave proud parents of UT students a chance to observe their sons and daughters visiting the university library in their endless quest for knowledge. (You can see the video of the event on YouTube by searching for "UT Flash Rave.")

Meanwhile, similar flash mobs were gathering on other college campuses across the country, including the University of North Carolina, the University of Kentucky and UT-Chattanooga. Unfortunately, the fine undergraduates who had gathered at the Lupton Library on the campus of UTC did not have as much fun as their colleagues in Chapel Hill, Lexington, and Knoxville. Their flash mob was quickly dispersed by UTC campus and Chattanooga police who hosed raving students with pepper spray and arrested four students for disorderly conduct. (Don't be surprised if signs soon appear on the UTC campus that say "FREE THE FLASHING FOUR!")

Following the pepper-sprayed rave, UTC Student Body President Tyler Forrest issued a statement in which he applauded his fellow students for "the school spirit shown at the Lupton Library," but said that the events "were potentially dangerous to a large number of students" and "were responded to appropriately by the UTC and Chattanooga Police Department."

Well, with all due respect to young President Forrest, he should be cast in the role of the governor in the upcoming UTC production of "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

While the "flash mobs" or raves are the latest fad on college campuses, believe me, there is nothing new under the sun, or in this case, the moon. Some 35 years ago, I was a wild and crazy undergraduate majoring in conservative arts at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and I vividly remember not just one flash mob, but several. And believe me, when I say flash mob, I mean flash mob. You see, during several warm nights during the spring of 1974, several UT Knoxville undergraduates decided to engage in an extracurricular activity called streaking. These outstanding young scholars ran down Cumberland Avenue buck nekkid, to use a medical phrase. (This brings to mind what the late, great Lewis Grizzard once said about the difference between "naked" and "nekkid." "Naked is when you don't have any clothes on," explained Lewis. "Nekkid is when you don't have any clothes on and you are doing something you ain't supposed to be doing!")

There were no e-mails, text messages, or tweets in 1974. But somehow the entire student body (so to speak) quickly got the word that nekkid students were streaking down Cumberland. We responded by quickly gathering on the "strip" (so to speak) to support our fellow students. The flash mob was led by a student body president named Haltom, who showed his leadership by urging co-eds to join streaking male students in this wonderful extracurricular activity.

The Knoxville police tried to disperse the crowd, but to no avail. They realized that they were outnumbered, and so, fortunately, they kept their mace and pepper spray in their holsters.

The good people of Knoxville were shocked by reports of undergrads stripping and streaking down the strip, but UT Chancellor Jack Reese took it all in stride. He told the UT Daily Beacon he had no intention of asking the campus police to arrest the streakers and disperse the crowd. "I am absolutely confident," said the good Chancellor, "that in a few days, this whole thing is going to peter out."

Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.