Campus Free Speech

UMass-Amherst Says Students Won't Get in Trouble for Harambe Jokes. But…

'Dicks out for Harambe' is okay. Probably.



Friends and supporters of Harambe—the beautiful gorilla who was shot dead by officials at the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this summer—are free to memorialize the great ape in any fashion they see fit: even if they are students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and even if their thing is saying "dicks out for Harambe."

As I reported yesterday, two UMass-Amherst RAs sent a letter to students who live on the third floor of the Sycamore Honors Dormitory warning them that making jokes about Harambe could be construed as racist microaggressions against the university's residential community for African students, which is also called "Harambe." The RAs further suggested that "dicks out for Harambe"—a popular iteration of the Harambe joke—could be a Title IX investigation.

The university administration now says the RAs were well-intentioned, but they overreached. No student will get in trouble for making Harambe jokes, said Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesperson for UMass-Amherst, in a statement to Reason:

"As an institution that values free speech and and exchange of ideas, UMass Amherst has not taken any steps to ban jokes or references about Harambe the gorilla.

The email sent by two well-intentioned undergraduate student resident assistants was a cautionary attempt to advise new students on their floor that the Harambe reference could be considered offensive to residents of the campus's Harambee community, a residential program focused on African and African-American history and culture, and that all students should be treated with respect and civility."

This statement didn't actually reassure me very much. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education points out, the university maintains a very broad sexual harassment policy: harassment is defined as conduct that is subjectively offensive, unwanted, and sexually suggestive. It seems to me that "dicks out for Harambe" could easily count as harassment under this definition, even though it ought to be considered protected expression. In other words, I'm concerned that a Title IX investigator could conceivably sanction a student for making the joke, even if the university says it's not specifically banned.

But when I rephrased my question and asked Blaguszewski if telling Harambe jokes could get a student in formal trouble, he replied that this was "not the case."

So it sounds like the students are in the clear, hopefully (Harambe be praised!).