The longevity and popularity of the Harambe meme—either an homage to the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo back in May, or a satire of internet culture, depending on how you look at it—are baffling to many, and it was only a matter of time until it became a controversy on campus. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), resident advisors are happy to oblige:
— Jarod Sasdi (@JarodSasdi13) September 5, 2016
An email from two UMass RAs warns students that the Harambe memes on their whiteboards are “derogatory” and “micro-aggressions to some UMass Students,” in part because a Defined Residential Community “focusing on African American heritage” is named the “Harambee” floor. The email also suggests that “using popularizes [sic] phrases/hashtags which encourage the exposition of body parts runs the risk of being reported as a Title IX incident” and that “[t]hese are sexual assault incidences that not only get reported to Community Standards, but also to the Dean of Students.” Since the phrase was not specified, we can only assume it’s the popular hashtag “#DicksOutForHarambe” which we suggest you just google for yourself if you want an explanation of the origin and meaning of the meme.
UMass RAs might not see much benefit or value to the Harambe meme, but it is not a public university’s place to determine that students who write Harambe jokes on their whiteboards should be punished. To imply that the phrase “dicks out for Harambe” is sexual harassment and worthy of a Title IX investigation is laughable. However, it’s not unbelievable that the RAs felt it necessary to send this email—they’re simply following school policy.
Examples of sexual harassment include, but are not limited to the following behaviors when they are unwelcome or unwanted, and are both objectively and subjectively offensive: … verbal comments of a sexual nature about an individual’s body or sexual terms used to describe an individual; display of sexually suggestive pictures, posters or cartoons; jokes, language, epithets or remarks of a sexual nature … .
The phrase “dicks out for Harambe” could be seen as a “sexually suggestive” and “unwanted” joke, so it’s not surprising that RAs would worry that this speech rises to the level of sexual harassment under this overly broad UMass policy.
Colleges have a responsibility to respond to accusations of sexual harassment. But by adopting the definition of prohibited student-on-student harassment in the educational context set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 651 (1999), they can do so without threatening students’ First Amendment rights. Or their Harambe memes. In Davis, the Court held that behavior constitutes hostile environment sexual harassment if it is discriminatory, targeted, and “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”
This incident should serve as a red flag for UMass: If its sexual harassment policy could be easily read by its employees as prohibiting jokes—that are clearly protected by the First Amendment—about a gorilla, then it needs to be revised. As always, FIRE stands ready to help UMass reform its speech codes so they’re in line with the First Amendment.
One last word of advice to colleges: If you want to see a phrase everywhere on campus, the best thing you can do is tell students they’ll be punished for using it.