No Sanctions for Offensive Memes, College Says
After a two-week investigation, Pomona College’s Incident Response Team has concluded that the offensive memes posted in an anti-PC meme group on Facebook, though “bias-related,” constitute speech that is protected by the First Amendment and therefore not subject to disciplinary action.
In an email to the student body, Pomona Dean Miriam Feldblum said the memes were “protected speech” and that the college had found 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.”
Even so, Feldblum added, the incident response team found the images “deeply offensive.”
A former administrator of the meme group told the Independent that the Pomona administration’s decision is “[a] great victory for freedom of speech in a world where it seems to be increasingly attacked and suppressed…[I] hope this is a step towards a more open Claremont.”
The body of Dean Feldblum’s email is included below:
Dear Members of the Pomona College Community,
I am writing to follow up on the message from Dean Townes last week (see below) regarding the memes and postings that recently came to the College’s attention. The IRT has completed its review and recommendations.
Reviewing the information received, the IRT found the memes were bias-related and protected speech. In addition, the College did not find a 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. However, the memes are an affront to our community values and our expectations of each other as we live, learn and work together. They are, to reiterate the IRT’s finding, deeply offensive, and include misogynistic, racist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic images and texts.
The IRT has recommended that the College undertake more proactive education to the community about what constitutes bias and/or policy violations related to speech, discrimination and harassment, and the ways to report and respond to bias. Their recommendations regarding more education are being shared with the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and with colleagues across The Claremont Colleges.
As suggested by the IRT, I want to take this opportunity now to review when speech or images may constitute a violation of College policy:
Verbal abuse, threats, intimidation, or 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.
To bring a claim under our Discrimination and Harassment Policy, there are also different conditions and thresholds; and, a student, staff, or faculty member can bring a complaint directly to the College. Here is information from the policy:
Prohibited harassment includes, but is not limited to, epithets, slurs, derogatory comments or jokes, intimidation, negative stereotyping, threats, assault or any physical interference with the employee’s normal work or movement. Harassment may also include written or graphic material placed on walls, bulletin boards or elsewhere on the College’s premises or circulated in the workplace that denigrates, shows hostility or aversion towards an individual or group because of the characteristics identified above. Whether or not the person means to give offense or believed his or her comments or conduct were welcome is not significant. Rather, the College’s Policy is violated when other workers, whether recipients or mere observers are, in fact, offended by comments or conduct based on any of the specified protected categories referenced above. Generally, to count as harassment under this Policy, such conduct must:
be based upon one or more of the categories mentioned in the non-discrimination policy;
be offensive to the individual complaining of harassment and offensive to a reasonable person; and
be so persistent, repetitive, pervasive, or severe that it has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s academic or professional performance or creating an intimidating, abusive or hostile educational, employment or living environment at the College.
Generally, statements and/or conduct legitimately and reasonably related to the College’s mission of education do not constitute harassment.
Harassment may also occur when submission to conduct described above is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, education, living environment at the College, or participation in a College activity.
I believe it should be our expectation as Pomona College community members that we engage with each other thoughtfully, hold each other accountable and call out bigotry and bias.
This is a developing story that will be updated accordingly.