York Technical College officials intend to honor a leasing agreement allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans South Carolina convention on campus in March, but pledged to minimize its presence and vowed no Confederate flags or similar symbols will be allowed on campus.
College officials stated during a news conference Monday morning that they originally canceled the contract after learning of convention plans as a result of reporting by The Herald. But they rescinded their notification after legal advice from several attorneys.
In fact, the college has spent some $30,000 in legal fees attempting to research its options regarding the SCV issue, according to York Tech President Greg Rutherford.
Still, the NAACP and other community leaders said they are against the event being held at the Baxter M. Hood Center in Rock Hill, because of the group’s use of the Confederate flag and the message that having the convention on campus would send to the community.
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Rutherford said that the Confederate flag will not be allowed to be displayed at the convention, stating that the school reserves the right to decide what materials can be displayed under a landlord/tenant type of agreement.
There will “neither now nor ever,” be a display of the Confederate flag on campus, including during the event, Rutherford said.
Rutherford said that school leadership, after receiving confirmation that center staff had booked the event, wanted to cancel it. But four legal opinions the school requested advised that the group had a First Amendment right to assemble.
“We deplore the Confederate flag,” he said, but said that legally the school cannot control the views of those groups - more than 400 in the past year - who rent from the school.
School officials now say they intend to keep the event isolated and away from the eyes of students and others among the college community, and that no Confederate flags or other similar symbols will be allowed anywhere on the York Tech campus, including inside the Hood center.
But officials as of mid-day Monday had not communicated those restrictions to the group.
When contacted by The Herald after the news conference, Bucky Sutton, commander of Rock Hill’s Micah Jenkins SCV camp - host for the convention - said he had not been contacted by York Tech officials concerning the school’s decision to honor the contract or any other information about what would be allowed. Sutton declined further comment.
Rutherford and other school leaders met with NAACP and black elected officials Monday before the news conference. NAACP officials say they are still against the convention because the flag remains “divisive,” and a sign of racial “hatred” and have brought up repeatedly the difficult and contentious racial climate in the region and country that might be made worse by the convention.
Since learning about the convention from a story in The Herald in September, the NAACP chapters in Rock Hill and western York County, along with Rep. John King, York County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey and others, have had meetings. They have expressed concerns over a convention that could feature the Confederate flag at a public college that receives taxpayer money.
NAACP leaders have said they respect free speech and assembly for all people, but that they had concerns about the school choosing to enter into a contract with a group that espouses the Confederate Flag.
The York Tech student body is about 25 percent black.
With urging from Gov. Nikki Haley, the General Assembly voted in 2015 to take the flag down from a spot next to the Statehouse after nine blacks were killed in June 2015 at a Charleston church, allegedly at the hands of Confederate flag supporter who wanted to start a race war.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is a non-profit organization that states on its website: “The South Carolina Division, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is the oldest hereditary organization for male descendants of Confederate soldiers. Organized at Richmond, Virginia in 1896, the SCV continues to serve as a historical, patriotic, and non-political organization dedicated to ensuring that a true history of the 1861-1865 period is preserved.”
The SCV website also states “One comes down, many go up,” with a picture of the Confederate flag in front of the S.C. Statehouse before it came down. The Confederate flag is on its logo and materials. The group held a news conference at the Statehouse in 2015 after the Charleston killings, but before the flag came down the next month, saying it denounced the killings but opposed any effort to take the flag down.
Yet, even if “SCV is considered by some to embrace unpopular views,” one of the legal opinions solicited by York Tech distributed Monday showed the First Amendment prohibits interfering with free speech and assembly. The legal mandate of taking the flag down applies only to the state capitol complex, the legal opinion states.
“If a college opens a limited public forum, the college may not deny access to that forum based on the viewpoint of the speaker nor grounds unrelated to the purpose for which the forum has been opened.”
York Tech held a nearly one-hour press conference at the Hood center Monday, criticizing coverage of the issue in The Herald.
President Rutherford took issue with The Herald’s previous coverage that said Confederate flags will be on display during the convention, saying the school can control what is put up during the convention and that no Confederate flags will be allowed.
Herald Editor Mark J. Rochester said the newspaper stands by its reporting on the issue.
“Until Monday, we had no idea the college had any concerns regarding our reporting on the Sons of Confederate Veterans convention taking place on campus. The school’s hard-line stance conveyed during the press conference had not been articulated during any of our previous reporting,” Rochester said.
Rochester said: “It was disappointing to see President Rutherford blame the media, and The Herald specifically, for covering an issue that is clearly newsworthy.”
A copy of the contract provided to The Herald said the Sons of Confederate Veterans will have “approximately 200 guests.” On its form for the convention, the group states that all registered guests will receive a convention medal.
“The convention medal will feature a photo of our ancestor’s battle flag as it flew July 9, 2015,” the form states. The Confederate flag was taken down from the Statehouse grounds the next day, July 10, 2015.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans Micah Jenkins camp from Rock Hill, on its registration form as the camp “host” for the event, shows a Confederate flag on the registration materials and has its logo that features the flag on the registration form. It also shows the group intends to have vending tables.
York Tech officials said, however, that no displays means none.
“If that means some of their vendors can’t come, then that’s the way it will be ,” said Marc Tarplee, York Tech’s vice president of business services, at the news conference.
After the news conference, NAACP Rock Hill chapter President Jacques Days and other black leaders said that the meeting with York Tech leaders was “interesting and informative” - they also were provided a copy of the contract - yet their position has not changed.
They said their position on the convention is simple: “We don’t want it,” Days said.
“The Confederate flag is a heinous sign of a divisive history,” Days said. “It is about division, racism and hatred.”
Days said that their “may be a way around” the contract and that potentially York Tech would not have to go forward, but he offered no details on a potential legal challenge.
In the short term, black leaders expect York Tech to honor what it announced Monday when leaders told the news conference that no Confederate flags will be displayed in any form.
“We will hold them true to their word that there will be no display of Confederate flags,” Days said.