Students at Pomona College came under investigation last month for posting offensive memes in a closed Facebook group. Today good sense prevailed and the college decided not to punish the kids for their speech.
The group is called "U PC BREAUX"—a funny way of spelling "You PC, bro?," which is a South Park joke about the fratty enthusiasm and militance of some campus social justice types. Launching an investigation over some un-P.C. meme-sharing is exactly the kind of overreaction that South Park was mocking.
Many people, to be sure, would be offended by the group's content. As student Ross Steinberg told Inside Higher Ed:
Memes were posted about rape, genocide and, in one example, calling Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants because they were being too loud, Steinberg told Inside Higher Ed. He said he had been randomly invited to the group, which contained about 300 members. Pomona enrolls about 1,650 students.
"Personally, I felt this is a big group on campus," Steinberg said. "This was a group in which people post hateful things…it really kind of normalizes that kind of thought."
Steinberg and others are free to expose participants to ridicule and condemnation. But Pomona's investigation hinges on whether irresponsible meme-ing constitutes a "bias incident," and that raises free speech considerations. Though Pomona is a private institution, it explicitly guarantees students that it will respect their free expression rights. The college's harassment code even binds administrators to the First Amendment:
Consistent with California Education Code Section 94367, the definition of harassment contained in this policy and its application to student speech shall be subject to the limitations of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 2 of the California Constitution.
As an educational institution, Pomona College is committed to the principle of free expression and the exploration of ideas in an atmosphere of civility and mutual respect. Thus, in keeping with the principles of academic freedom, there can be no forbidden ideas.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to Pomona urging them to abandon the probe. "Pomona students cannot be subject to investigation or punishment for reading, posting to, or being a member of a private Facebook group that permits, or even encourages, its members to share images and text offensive to other people," wrote FIRE's Adam Steinbaugh. "The threat of punitive measures implied from an investigation by administrators may please some members of the community, but it is fundamentally at odds with Pomona's policies and obligations."
This morning, Vice President for Student Affairs Miriam Feldblum sent an email to students announcing that the investigation was completed. The college determined that "the memes were bias-related and protected speech" and that there was no "basis to initiate an investigation into the Facebook group or individual students for possible violations of the Student Code or our Discrimination and Harassment Policy."
Feldblum's email clarifies that speech has to meet several criteria before it crosses the line between protected expression and impermissible harassment:
An act which is speech alone shall not be considered to violate this paragraph unless it is a threat of violence; or
(1) the speech, considered objectively, is abusive and insulting rather than a communication of ideas,
(2) the speech is directed at an individual and actually used in an abusive manner in a situation that presents an actual danger that it will cause an immediate breach of the peace by inciting a violent reaction by the individual to whom the speech is addressed and,
(3) the student intends the speech to be abusive and insulting rather than a communication of ideas.
As long as speech has to meet all three of those definitions to be considered harassment—objectively abusive, deliberately abusive, and inciting imminent violence—this is a suitable approach.
"This seems to be exactly what we wanted Pomona to do," Steinbaugh tells Reason. "It would be preferable that colleges not embark on investigations in the first place, but it's good to see a quick resolution."