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U. president decries 'deeply offensive' tweet from comedian David Cross

But Ruth Watkins defends free speech rights amid Twitter firestorm over church garments

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah President Ruth Watkins condemned Sunday the use of religious undergarments in a tweet promoting an upcoming comedy show on campus.

She called the use of the imagery "deeply offensive," but defended the comedian's free speech rights.

The Twitter firestorm began Saturday when comic David Cross, best known as Tobias Funke on the TV show "Arrested Development," promoted his stand-up show in Utah with a Twitter photo of him standing in front of a woman appearing to wear nothing but garments worn by many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the caption: "Utah! Learn the real truth!" with the date and time of his Wednesday show at Kingsbury Hall.

The University of Utah first appeared to endorse the post, responding to the tweet from its official account with a picture of his Tobias character saying, "Huzzah!"

The post was later deleted and a subsequent tweet was sent from the U.'s Twitter account.

"We apologize for not immediately seeing a connection to the LDS faith in this tweet. It took a minute to understand the reaction to our GIF, but gratefully our community pointed it out. Our reply was in reaction to David Cross performing on campus & not intended to offend," it said.

The school's tweet wasn't meant to mock the church, said U. spokesman Chris Nelson. It was sent by a social media manager who does not have a connection to the faith and didn't understand that garments are considered sacred to members of The Church of Jesus Christ who wear them as a reminder of religious commitments made in the church's temples.

"He quickly was educated on that," Nelson said.

Still, some said the university's initial response ridiculed many of its students, and others called on the school to cancel the show.

The sender of the tweet was simply reacting to Cross' planned Wednesday show, Nelson said, and the university apologized in additional tweets.

"The University of Utah condemns bigotry and religious intolerance in any form," Watkins said in her prepared statement Sunday. "The offensive use of sacred religious imagery in a tweet by David Cross promoting his performance at Kingsbury Hall was in opposition to the university's values of respect and inclusivity.

"The use of the imagery was deeply offensive," the president's statement continued. "At the same time, the First Amendment protects such speech and the university cannot and will not censor content of those coming to campus. We acknowledge the free speech rights of individuals and entities who rent university facilities — even those with whom we disagree. By doing so we protect the free speech rights of all."

McKay Coppins, a writer at The Atlantic, was among critics of the digital flier, calling Cross' joke "excruciatingly lame." Cross shot back, telling Coppins only terrible writers and 14-year-old girls use such phrases.

Cross responded to several of the tweets and on Sunday suggested he'll mine the backlash for material at the show.

"Holy 'moly'! My opening 10 minutes are going to be on fire!!!" he tweeted.