A Coastal Carolina University student faced a backlash from fellow students and university officials this week for a series of social media posts, including racist and homophobic remarks and one video that referenced bringing a high-powered rifle to class.
Michael Loyd, who recently completed his freshman year at Coastal, said that despite what was shared, he is not a racist, does not hate gay people and does not plan to carry out any violence.
“I’m sorry that people took it this way,” he said. “I didn’t intend for it to offend anyone or to be read by that many people.”
Loyd, who studies sociology, posted tweets and videos that were widely shared online via screenshots and screen recordings, though at least one post sharing some of the screen captures and recordings had been deleted as of Tuesday afternoon. Loyd’s posts included the statement, “Gay people aren't people.”
His online comments drew condemnation from university leaders.
“First, I unequivocally acknowledge these posts to be racist and homophobic in nature,” Coastal President David DeCenzo said in a statement sent to students and faculty Sunday night. “These words create a hostile environment for our students and are in direct conflict with the values of this university.”
In response to the posts, DeCenzo promised the university is taking action, though his message did not describe the content in detail, nor did it include Loyd’s name.
Videos Loyd filmed in his dorm room and shared on the social media app TikTok include one that depicts a person walking into a classroom with a clothing hanger intended to represent a firearm.
Loyd insists his posts were never intended to be threatening and were a failed attempt at humor.
“They were 100% jokes,” he said. “I want to be really clear about that. … “I’m not going to be violent toward anyone in any way.”
One of the posts is a video that shows Loyd with his mouth agape with text stating: “The whole class staring at the guy that came in.” The video then cuts to Loyd holding a clothing hanger and shows the text: “Me with my AR-15 forgetting why I walked in the room.”
When asked about the hashtag on the video that said “#mepracticing,” Loyd said he was unaware of the tag being on the video. When posting on TikTok, users can type in their own custom tags or use trending ones.
Calling school shootings “horrible,” he said others have also joked about the subject. Loyd admitted that the video is one of a few posts he regrets sharing and he apologized to those who have safety concerns because of it.
But university administrators confirmed Coastal police are looking into the comments.
“Additional messages which refer to potential violence have been brought to our attention, and our law enforcement is working to assess the threat those messages may pose to our campus community,” DeCenzo said in his prepared statement. “Once assessed, our law enforcement will determine the appropriate steps to address the posts. Those additional posts are also being reviewed for appropriate follow-up through the student conduct process.”
While he acknowledged the comment includes a racist stereotype about Black people, Loyd again said he is not a bigot and that the video was also meant to be a joke.
“I didn’t intend that to be racist in any sort of way,” he said. “I was making a bunch of TikToks because I was bored and happened to copy one that I thought was funny that I saw someone else post.”
Looking back, Loyd said he should not have posted either TikTok video.
He also argued that in some cases he was simply expressing his opinions.
As an example, Loyd cited a post about his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“I don’t support gay relationships because it’s unnatural, it’s wrong, it’s a sin, and personally, I think it’s gross,” one of his tweets said. A different tweet said “Gay ‘marriage’ should be illegal.” Others stated it is impossible for two people of the same gender to have sex or get married.
As for his tweet that said, “Gay people aren't people,” that is another post Loyd wishes he hadn’t shared.
“That’s something I don’t believe,” he said.
But he doesn't regret the others.
“Yes, I may have said some things that were a little more mean to some people than necessary,” he said, “but I still feel like they were opinions.”
Loyd was surprised by the criticism his posts generated.
“I feel like all of this being blown way out of proportion,” he said.
For Coastal, this is not the first public uproar stemming from a CCU student’s comments on social media. Over the past year, DeCenzo and other university officials have sent emails to university workers, students and the community about similar cases.
In December, a video surfaced of a student making gagging noises at an interracial couple at a bar. The student referred to the two of them as an “Oreo couple” in the video.
CCU later tweeted a response to the video, denouncing the student’s actions and stating “the video does not align with our commitment to promote a culture of inclusiveness and equity.”
On Sunday, DeCenzo assured students, faculty and the Coastal community that the university’s goal is to put an end to incidents like this.
“The social media posts made by some members of our community over the last year have made it very clear to me that this University must re-evaluate our policies/processes and better assess our response to balancing the expression of opinion with a clear response to hateful and repugnant speech,” he wrote. “I am commissioning a task force to review, evaluate and propose revisions to our policies and practices to address the hate-filled language incidents that occur within our community.”
One of Loyd’s tweets that drew scrutiny said he “just got an email from coastal that basically said ‘people had their feelings hurt but you have the freedom of speech so this is the most we are going to say about it.’” When asked about this, he shared a letter he received from the Dean of Students Office dated June 25.
The message said the office has received several reports about postings on social media and reached out to express concerns reported.
“Coastal Carolina University affirms that freedom of speech is an unalienable right in both the Constitution and the University’s Code of Student Conduct,” the letter said. “We also value and strive for excellence in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. Please consider the congruence of these values as you represent Teal Nation.”
University officials said it is important for Loyd to understand concerns that others have raised, inviting him to “consider the thoughts and perceptions of others in relation to this subject matter as you continue to engage in dialogue both online and in person as a member of our community.”
The letter noted that words have an “immeasurable impact on others” and “we are not free from the consequences of such speech when it invokes the frustrations and anger of others.”
“Additionally, keep in mind that your social media presence is a lifelong, living record,” the letter continued. “The passing social media posts of 2020 may become a cause of concern for future employers, relationships and beyond.”
University officials said in the letter they would be happy to engage in a dialogue with Loyd to “both challenge your peers and support you as a student.”
“We aim to create a community of care and believe that empowering students with the tools to participate in respectful discussions of discourse is a part of a strong community,” the letter said.
The Dean of Students Office invited Loyd to reach out if he wanted to discuss the matter further and provided contact information.
“Otherwise, this will be the extent of our communication on this matter,” the letter ended.
Many students and alumni have expressed their frustration with the comments and Coastal’s response to them.
Some have called for disciplinary action to be taken against Loyd.
That includes Thomas Fisher, who graduated from Coastal in 2018.
“As a student, this learning environment empowered me to think critically about the movements which we see across the United States today, and how we as young professionals can actively participate to see the changes which need to be made,” he said.
“Seeing the posts by Mr. Loyd are disturbing because it’s clear there is a lack of empathy and critical thought on his behalf,” Fisher added. “It’s like a child with their fingers in their ears screaming, ‘La la la la la!’
“I’m incredibly disturbed because I was able to experience the faculty and staff and to see the type of empathy and understanding that they have after years of study. The students and faculty are largely responsible for the cultivating the diversity and inclusion that many students, but not all, seem to witness on campus.”
CCU student JaQuan Shelton said although he doesn’t know Loyd personally, he was "still somewhat heartbroken, angry and speechless.”
“It was a lot to take in, especially considering this is a kid that I could’ve shared hallways with,” he said. "It was truly a shocking moment for many of us. I don’t have any ill feelings toward Loyd. I just really hope that he learns from this. I hope that he takes the initiative to see, listen and learn from the groups that he targeted.”
In his message, DeCenzo addressed the anger from the Coastal community and assured that “every instance is thoroughly reviewed, and, when appropriate under the law, actions are taken.”
“However, the specific outcomes of any disciplinary action cannot be shared in accordance with federal privacy laws,” he wrote. “We seek to determine the most appropriate response to language that may be protected by the First Amendment, as most state institutions experience, but we can and must do better.”
His email went on to say that Coastal is not “completely powerless in the face of hate.”
However, the university acknowledged that it is “very difficult to manage an individual’s use of language with the right to legally protected speech.”
“The current interpretation and application of the First Amendment means someone may be attending a public university with people who hold and openly express racist, homophobic, or sexist views,” DeCenzo stated. “This can be disheartening and confusing because large companies, sports teams and organizations have gone public with firing or removing employees or board members for publicly stating beliefs that do not align with their organizational values. Those private companies and organizations have that option. A public, state-funded university does not have the same discretion.”
Frank LoMonte, a media law professor at the University of Florida, said the issue of college students making controversial or offensive social media posts is a recurring one popping up in courts and on campuses across the country.
While a student who makes certain remarks might have to appear before a student conduct board if a complaint is filed and may be subject to punishment, LoMonte said there are no exceptions to protections offered under the First Amendment for hateful language.
The American Civil Liberties Union website says the First Amendment “protects speech no matter how offensive its content.”
“Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution,” the ACLU’s site says.
In the “on-campus world,” LoMonte said that does not mean all institutions are barred from taking action to punish a student whose comments officials declare as inciting a disturbance or imminently about to incite a disturbance.
This is especially true when it comes to remarks that hint at committing violence, place the community in danger or cause one to be in fear of his or her physical safety. In that situation, the speaker has gone past what the First Amendment protects.
“To be clear, the First Amendment does not protect behavior on campus that crosses the line into targeted harassment or threats, or that creates a pervasively hostile environment for vulnerable students,” the ACLU’s site says. “But merely offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level, and determining when conduct crosses that line is a legal question that requires examination on a case-by-case basis.”
In some cases, a person could be expressing hateful views but not indicating a propensity to act upon those views, LoMonte said. If a comment is directed at specific individuals, or someone identifiable, that can cross the line into harassment territory.
An institution can disavow and condemn speech, but they probably can’t expel a person from a public college who happens to voice extreme views, particularly when they tie into political or social thoughts.
DeCenzo said the new task force will be meeting over the coming weeks before making recommendations to his office. Effective immediately, he said, “a review team will convene to review any future submissions of hate-filled messaging from members of our community.” That team will consist of faculty, staff and student representation and “will recommend a course of action to the university leadership for each specific incident.”
DeCenzo is also charging Coastal Carolina University Provost Dan Ennis with working with faculty “in order to integrate discussion of the responsible use of social media” into the university’s curriculum.
“We need to provide students an opportunity to discuss the wide-ranging impacts social media posts — good and bad — can have upon public discourse as well as an individual’s future educational and professional opportunities,” DeCenzo continued.
The incident comes amid unrest in the United States, where protests across the country have decried racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd died when an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
“Our nation is currently at a concerning crossroads, a place where we should have been many years ago, a place where we must stop and better understand the lived experiences of each other, a place where we must work to eliminate instances that demean others based on their identities,” DeCenzo said. “In doing that, we take steps to oppose hatred and continue to build a nation of justice and opportunity. My hope is that the Coastal Carolina University community can participate in those steps by revisiting our processes and continuing to educate our students.”
Fisher, the alumnus, said he does not support Loyd continuing his academic career at Coastal, but added that if he is allowed to remain a student, he hopes he “takes into account the lived experiences of people other than himself and that he listens to those experiences as a way to grow.”
“If he learns nothing else from this, I hope he learns to listen to other people because his experience in this life is not the only experience life can offer,” Fisher said.
Calling the university’s response “reprehensibly tone-deaf,” Fisher described the posts as threatening to several marginalized groups on campus, and said the administration needs to hold Loyd accountable.
“The creation of a diversity and inclusion course for incoming students, along with this new process of investigation and task force for hate speech and violence in the CCU community, are noble intentions on behalf of the university, but students and faculty need to see change and need to feel as though their safety matters,” Fisher said. “Coastal is notoriously becoming known for perpetuating the same types of violence and oppression that parallels that of the ‘thoughts and prayers’ crowd. Your rhetoric is beautiful, but it means nothing if your actions do not back that up.”
Fisher also blasted the video that depicts a classroom, feeling that Loyd’s only regret about the video comes from the fact that he was "caught."
“If he truly regretted that video, it wouldn’t have been public for six months,” Fisher said. “He can claim that he doesn’t hate LGBTQIA+ people, and he can claim that he doesn’t hate people of color, but his responses to peers attempting to hold him accountable shows that he has a strong aversion to those groups.”
Loyd said he hopes to communicate more with Coastal officials about the matter and explain things from his perspective.
Though his social media accounts are private, Loyd said he does not wish to delete posts, saying he is “not trying to hide from all this.”
“I believe in owning up to all the stuff you’ve ever done,” he said.
University spokeswoman Martha Hunn declined to comment on the situation beyond DeCenzo’s statement.