The Clemson University administration struggled with issues relating to Free Speech on campus during the latter half of 2016. In August, a man praying on Clemson’s campus with a sign urging others to join him was asked to leave the area by a university administrator. His religious expression was interpreted as solicitation, as he was not a Clemson student or faculty member and he was praying with his sign outside of a designated Free Speech zone. The next month, students were banned from displaying images of Harambe, a famous gorilla who had died earlier that year, in their residence hall.
Kyra Palange, a graduate student and member of the conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom, joined the visitor in praying for a few moments before university administrators intervened.
Shawn Jones, Clemson’s assistant director for client services, approached the man praying with Palange and informed him that his speech was considered solicitation and was taking place outside of a campus Free Speech zone. He then asked the man to leave.
Robby Roberts was praying on a grassy area of Clemson’s campus near Fort Hill around 3:15 pm on Thursday, August 25, 2016. According to the Charlotte Observer, Roberts was sitting in a folding chair with another stationed next to him, along with an 8×10 sign that said “PRAYER”.
Kyra Palange, a graduate student, was walking in that area and decided to join the man in prayer for a few moments. They were approached by Shawn Jones and made to relocate. Jones informed Roberts that in the future he would need to follow the proper procedure in order to be permitted to solicit on campus. Jones also offered Roberts the paperwork to begin the registration process. Palange caught some of the interaction on video. When questioned about the potential encroachment on the man’s First Amendment rights on a public campus, Clemson administrators defended Jones’ actions. Mark Land, a spokesman for the university, told the College Fix that “the community member in this situation was not asked to leave campus nor was his prayer with one of our students interrupted.” Land said that Roberts was simply directed to “an appropriate location, such as one of the university’s designated free speech zones.”
The prayer incident was not Clemson’s only issue with the First Amendment. In September 2016, images of a famous gorilla named Harambe were banned by a community director in a residence hall after a student filed a complaint. According to National Review, Community Director Brooks Artis said, “there have been reports that [Harambe] and the incident surrounding his death have been used to add to the rape culture as well as being a form of racism.” In an effort to avoid discomfort, all references to the gorilla were banned from being displayed in dormitories, reports The Federalist.
Since any part of a student’s room is considered his or her private space, including the exterior of the door, the Harambe ban was subject to intense criticism. After receiving negative media attention, administrators overturned the rule. In addition, the university implemented mandatory First Amendment training for resident advisors so that they understand what they can and cannot regulate in dorms and are aware of what speech is and is not protected by the U.S. Constitution. The first training occurred in January 2017.
Protest on campus
WeRoar Clemson, a student group dedicated to supporting Free Speech on campus, organized a protest to criticize the university’s actions toward Roberts and, more broadly, Clemson’s Free Speech policy, which it views as unconstitutional.
First Amendment taught and supported by the administration
After resident advisors seemingly infringed on students’ First Amendment rights, the requirements to become an RA changed. They now include mandatory First Amendment training.
Prepared by Bridget McElroy ‘18
December 8, 2017