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Public University Threatens Student with Expulsion for Anti-Lynching Protest
- A Winthrop University student allegedly participated in protest of campus building’s name
- The South Carolina public university charged the student with “disturb[ing] the public order and peace”
- The university president sent an email suggesting that “hurtful” art is punishable
Rock Hill, S.C., Dec. 8, 2016—Winthrop University is threatening a student with expulsion or suspension for her alleged involvement in an art installation criticizing the name of a campus building. Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Coalition against Censorship (NCAC) wrote to the university president to ask that he immediately drop the charges against the student before her pre-hearing interview tomorrow and reaffirm the public university’s commitment to protecting First Amendment rights.
During the weekend of November 12, Winthrop student Samantha Valdez allegedly participated in preparing an art installation featuring figures in the trees outside Winthrop’s Tillman Hall alongside a sign reading “Tillman’s Legacy.” Tillman Hall is named after Benjamin Tillman, a governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 whose time in office saw an increase in the number of lynchings of African-Americans.
In response to the “Tillman’s Legacy” art installation, Winthrop University President Daniel F. Mahony sent an email to the campus community on November 14 expressing his intention to punish those responsible for the display. He wrote, “While we do not know the intent of this display, these images are clearly hurtful and threatening and are contrary to the values of Winthrop University.”
On November 21, Valdez received a letter from the university charging her with violating two campus policies that prohibit “[b]ehavior that disturbs the public order and peace” and “disorderly conduct.”
“Winthrop’s charges against Samantha rest upon the spurious notion that it can punish students for constitutionally protected expression on the basis that it might result in negative reactions,” said FIRE Program Officer Sarah McLaughlin. “Winthrop is a public university that must uphold First Amendment rights. The First Amendment is clear: Public institutions cannot punish students for expression just because it’s subjectively offensive.”
Valdez told the media that her group, Association of Artists for Change, was responsible for the display. She said that the artwork was a protest intended to “ensure genuine emotion from the viewer” and to create an “aesthetic dialogue” about Tillman’s legacy. Tillman Hall has been at the center of student protests for months due to its namesake.
“Confronting viewers with an unpleasant image or idea is not the same as threatening them with the actions those images or ideas convey,” said McLaughlin. “The installation was a commentary on racism and lynching, which the months of protests and ‘Tillman’s Legacy’ sign make apparent—not a declaration of intent to engage in it, as the Winthrop administration seems to suggest.”
FIRE and NCAC’s letter today asks the university to revoke the baseless “disruption” and “disorderly conduct” charges against Valdez before her campus judicial pre-hearing meeting tomorrow and rescind the threat of suspension or expulsion for her alleged participation in the art installation. Winthrop must also clarify that students won’t be punished or censored purely on the basis that some listeners might perceive their expression as “hurtful.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), founded in 1974, is an alliance of over 50 national nonprofit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups dedicated to promoting the right to free speech.
Nico Perrino, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel F. Mahony, President, Winthrop University: 803-323-2225; email@example.com
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