COLUMBIA, Mo. — The leader of the University of Missouri system and chancellor of its flagship Columbia campus is backtracking in the face of backlash and a possible lawsuit for blocking critical students on Twitter.
Spokesman Christian Basi on Thursday said system President and Columbia Chancellor Mun Choi unblocked the students Wednesday, the same day a lawyer warned he would sue if Choi didn't do so.
Choi had blocked students who criticized his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and blamed him for a marked uptick in COVID-19 cases in the community.
One tweet called for Choi's resignation and included a photo with an expletive. Basi said some of the tweets about Choi included "abusive comments, and they were filled with expletives."
Basi said Choi unblocked the accounts because he's focused on leading the school through the pandemic and Mizzou "does not need the distraction."
But attorney Chris Bennett, who is representing some of the students, said a student journalist blocked by Choi never tweeted anything directly critical of him. Bennett said many of the tweets didn't even tag Choi, meaning he would have had to go out of his way to find them.
"He was actually searching his name and finding tweets that I guess offended him in some way and blocking them," Bennett said.
Bennett said that violates students' free-speech rights because Choi, as the leader of a public university system, blocked some students from public forums about the university.
"Morally, I just think it's problematic that a president of a university would not listen to students and would actually seek to silence their voices and hide their voices from him so that he doesn't have to listen to them," he said. "That's a failure of leadership."
Mike Olson, who is studying to get his PhD in history at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said he's repeatedly tweeted concerns about Mizzou reopening amid the pandemic and criticism of Choi's handling of the pandemic. He found out Choi blocked him Wednesday.
"Choi has a reputation for being extremely thin-skinned and non-receptive to criticism, so I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and was not really surprised," Olson said.
Bennett also pointed to meetings Choi held in July with administrators and top university officials to make it clear that he expected their support for his and the Board of Curators' decision to keep a Thomas Jefferson statue on Columbia's campus, as reported by the Columbia Daily Tribune.
"If you are a leader, a senior leader at the university, and you don't agree with the philosophy of the university or you don't trust the motivations of the senior leaders, then I think you should leave," Choi told the newspaper in July.
Thousands of students had called for the removal of the statue of the slave owner.
Basi said Choi is "open to having conversations with students on any issue, and he's been very good about receiving feedback that helps Mizzou move forward."
But Basi said Choi "hopes that the tone of some of theses conversations on social media can become more respectful."
Choi took over as president of the four-campus system in 2017 following massive protests over the administration's handling of racial slurs and other racist acts at the Columbia campus.
More than 30 black football team members said they wouldn't play until the university's president was removed and one student went on a hunger strike. University system President Tim Wolfe ultimately resigned and Columbia campus Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down to take another job with the university.
Some students say not enough has been done to combat racism on campus in the five years since the upheaval.
A new group called #StillConcerned, born from the 2015 protest group named Concerned Student 1950, has called for Choi's resignation.
The Black Student Athlete Association led hundreds of students last week in a march and rally protesting racial injustice nationwide.