Clemson students worry ‘banana banner’ will lead to free speech setbacks

Students at Clemson University are concerned that an offensive display found on campus Monday will derail their efforts to promote free speech protections.

The incident involved bananas that were found hanging next to a banner honoring the history of African-Americans at Fort Hill, a museum that was once a plantation owned by John Calhoun, according to Greenville Online, and elicited a swift reaction from administrators.

“The act of intolerance is equal parts disappointing and infuriating and has no place in the Clemson community,” Interim Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Dr. L. Christopher Miller wrote in a campus-wide email provided to Campus Reform. “To misuse one’s right to free speech in such a way is irresponsible and violates everything that Clemson stands for as a place of learning, personal growth, and respect.”

Adding to the outrage over the display is the fact that it was discovered just one day before the scheduled groundbreaking for a historical marker identifying the location of former slave quarters at the Fort Hill site.

Asserting that “all Clemson students deserve the opportunity to learn in an environment that supports and respects them and does not discriminate against them,” Miller encouraged students affected by the incident to contact Counseling and Psychological Services, and also announced that he would hold an informational meeting Tuesday night “to answer any questions with respect to the current incident.”

“This type of conduct is hurtful, disrespectful, unacceptable, and will not be tolerated,” university President Dr. James Clements concurred in a statement of his own, adding that campus police is investigating the incident as part of the school’s commitment to “providing a safe, encouraging environment which supports and embraces inclusiveness at every level.”

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Clayton Warnke, president of Clemson’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter, told Campus Reform that while he understands that the display was offensive, he is concerned that the university is reacting overzealously, particularly given its comparatively lackluster handling of other recent instances of vandalism and racial controversy.

“I am concerned that there will be a push by the likes of ‘Coalition of Concerned Students’ and ‘See the Stripes’ that have advocated speech codes to silence any ‘offensive’ or ‘defamatory’ speech,” he fretted, pointing out that he and other like-minded students have been demonstrating for the elimination of unconstitutional speech restrictions, particularly a bias-reporting system that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education considers overly vague and subject to abuse.

[RELATED: Students petition Clemson to eliminate speech restrictions]

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“There were two incidents that occurred within the last six months that attacked others but the administration was nowhere on these issues,” Warnke said. “In one instance a pro-life display was vandalized but the university pursued no charges in that instance or stood up for pro-life students. In the second issue, someone vandalized Tillman Hall, spray painting the building saying that the name should be changed” because Clemson founder Benjamin Tillman “was a violent racist.”

In both cases, Warnke said, “there were no statements; there were no emails sent out condemning the act; there was only pure silence” from the administration. “Now they want people to report any information to the police.”

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