On November 21, 2016, Winthrop University officials initiated disciplinary proceedings against Samantha Valdez, a student and spokesperson for an artist-activist group that reportedly produced a controversial art installation on campus.
Sources indicate that during the weekend of November 12, an art installation was found outside of Tillman Hall, a building named after former South Carolina Governor Benjamin Tillman, who historians say supported lynchings of African-Americans during his administration in the 1890s. Photos of the installation show 18 black stockings filled with dirt hanging from trees, as well as a sign marked “Tillman’s Legacy” placed below the hall’s main sign. Ms. Valdez issued a statement on behalf of the Association of Artists for Change (AAC), an anonymous group of student artists, in which they claimed responsibility for the installation, saying that the 18 stockings represented the men lynched during Governor Tillman’s tenure, and calling on the campus community to confront the hall’s name, especially in the wake of a divisive US presidential election. On November 14, Winthrop University’s president issued a statement condemning the display and announcing both administrative and criminal investigations against those involved.
On November 21, Ms. Valdez received a letter from Anthony Davis, Winthrop’s Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct, notifying her of an investigation into her alleged involvement in creating the installation and inviting her to a pre-hearing interview with the university’s Department of Student Affairs. According to the letter, Ms. Valdez violated Student Conduct Code articles A (“actual or threatened disruption of classes, seminars, research projects, or functions or activities of the University”) and E (“disorderly conduct”). Mr. Davis further stated that the installation “was in an area not designated for public display,” that the “area, time, or manner in which [the] display occurred was unreasonable,” and that “by not following proper procedures for public displays, [the installation] unnecessarily disturbed numerous individual students and groups.” Pending the disciplinary hearing, Ms. Valdez may face expulsion or suspension from the university.
On December 9, Winthrop University Campus Police announced that it had closed its criminal investigation of AAC “until further information is received.” The announcement followed a pre-hearing interview between Ms. Valdez and university officials; however it is unclear what effect, if any, the meeting had on the decision to close the criminal investigation. As of this report, the university’s disciplinary proceedings into Ms. Valdez are ongoing.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about potential retaliation, involving disproportionate punishments such as expulsion or suspension, for nonviolent student expression, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments as well as United States law. While university officials have a right to maintain order on campus and protect university property, such actions must be undertaken without violating the peaceful and responsible exercise of the right to freedom of expression and academic freedom. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.
On December 14, 2016, university disciplinary authorities found Ms. Valdez “Not Responsible” for the charges of “[b]ehavior that disturbs the public order and peace” and disorderly conduct. As part of the resolution of the issue, the university agreed to hold a panel discussion, before February 17, 2017, to address Ms. Valdez’s art installation, as well issues of campus civility and free speech.