Students: Clemson seems reluctant to acknowledge our 'banana banner' FOIA

Clemson University is approaching the deadline to acknowledge Freedom of Information Act requests related to a recent racial controversy on campus, and the students who filed the requests say they intend to proceed with a FOIA suit if they do not receive a response by Monday afternoon.

“The deadline for this particular FOIA is Monday, May 9, 2016 at 4:30pm, and as of today, we still have not heard back from the administration,” Clayton Warnke, one of the students behind the request, told Campus Reform. “It leaves one to wonder: What information are they neglecting to provide that is so important to the university, that they are willing to violate federal law and risk a federal lawsuit?”

University administrators and campus police launched investigations last month following the appearance of a bunch of bananas hanging from a banner honoring the history of African-Americans at Fort Hill, a museum on campus that was once a plantation owned by pro-slavery politician John Calhoun, and while two individuals reportedly confessed to placing the bananas shortly thereafter, no details have yet been made public.

[RELATED: Clemson students worry ‘banana banner’ will lead to free speech setbacks]

A picture of the display quickly circulated on social media, prompting a student group called See The Stripes to organize a “#StudentBlackOut” rally that culminated in a nine-day occupation of an administrative building by students demanding various diversity initiatives.

[RELATED: Clemson students challenge ‘Black Out’ protesters]

A different group of students, many of whom had already been petitioning Clemson to remove unconstitutional restrictions on student speech when the banana banner controversy erupted, became concerned that some of the activists’ demands involved further speech limitations, and began seeking out information regarding the identity and motivations of the two individuals who confessed to placing the bananas on the banner.

The students say several administrators directed them to Alesia Smith, Director of the Office of Community and Ethical Standards and Associate Dean of Students, saying she was handling the university’s investigation, but she allegedly informed them that the specific details are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and declined to speak with the students on camera.

When the students subsequently encountered Smith at the site of the student sit-in and questioned her apparent relationship to DJ Smith, one of the protest leaders, they were confronted by Bryant Smith, DJ’s father, who made several veiled threats and at one point attempted to seize on of the students’ cell phones.

[RELATED: Clemson admin offers recusal after students question relation to protest leader]

Even as they queried administrators in person, the students also filed several FOIA requests on April 18 requesting all emails and text messages sent to or from Vice President for Student Affairs Almeda Jacks containing words or phrases related to the incident, such as “bananas” and “vandalism.”

South Carolina gives public agencies 15 working days to acknowledge FOIA requests, at which point the agency must either agree to provide the requested information within a “reasonable time” or else claim an exemption and offer an explanation for why the records in question cannot be released.

Kyle Brady, the student whose name appears on the FOIA requests, told Campus Reform that he knows the university did not simply overlook the documents, forcing him to question Clemson’s reluctance to address the issue.

“After I delivered nine more FOIA's last week, one University official gave me a rather odd look, asking, ‘Didn't you already turn in a FOIA?’” Brady said, explaining that “this confirmed to me that they had received my FOIA request and just chose not to act on it and not to respond.

“A proper response could even be a request for more time, but after not even seeing that it is apparent that the University may just want to shove this under the rug,” he continued, saying, “It makes me question why, but I will save my suspicions for another day."

“All the administrators need to do to stay on the right side of the law is send us a response saying they are processing our FOIA and that they will get in touch with us later,” added Zachariah Talley, who is also involved in the group’s efforts. “The fact that they seem willing to stonewall us regarding all information about the identity and motivations of the perpetrator, even if it means violating state law, should raise a lot of questions, [and] the biggest one in my mind is, what is in those records that is so bad a high ranking administrator is willing to break the law?”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included assertions from the students that the school had already missed the deadline. It has been corrected to reflect that Clemson has 15 working days to acknowledge the FOIA request, a deadline that expires Monday afternoon.]