ROCK HILL, S.C., Dec. 19, 2016—A Winthrop University student was found not responsible for violating two university speech codes after her involvement with a campus anti-lynching art installation. This outcome comes six days after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) wrote to the university president to ask that the charges be dropped.
“The art display was intended to create a conversation on campus about racism and lynching and it did exactly that,” said FIRE Program Officer Sarah McLaughlin. “We are hopeful that the result of this ordeal is more speech, not less, and that those who wish to continue the conversation can do so without their free speech rights being threatened.”
During the weekend of November 12, Winthrop student Samantha Valdez helped prepare an art installation featuring small figures hanging from 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 expressing his intention to punish those responsible for the display and arguing that the images were “clearly hurtful” and “contrary to the values of Winthrop University.”
On November 21, Valdez received a letter from the university threatening her with suspension or expulsion for violating two campus speech codes that prohibit “[b]ehavior that disturbs the public order and peace” and “disorderly conduct.”
FIRE and NCAC wrote to President Mahony on December 8, demanding that the university drop its spurious charges and threats of expulsion or suspension against Valdez. On December 14, Valdez was found not responsible for violating the two campus speech codes. In addition, Samantha and campus administrators have agreed to host a panel to discuss her display, campus civility, and the First Amendment sometime before February 17, 2017.
“Direct action can be hard to face. It highlights issues and can be unsettling, but censoring will only perpetuate hate,” said Valdez. “Winthrop University has decided to use the event as an education opportunity, and has allowed the Association of Artists for Change a platform to educate the community on race, art, and the true history of Tillman. The Association of Artists for Change and I are so grateful for FIRE, NCAC, and all the support we have received.”
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.
Nico Perrino, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Update (3:38 p.m.): This press release has been updated to include a statement from the student.