Pomona Declares 'Deeply Offensive' Secret Meme Group Bias-Related Incident

(Flickr / Adela Pfaff • The Student Life)

Pomona College’s Incident Response Team has declared that posts in a secret 5C Facebook group constitute a “bias-related incident,” the college announced Monday. The group, called U PC BREAUX, was thrust into the spotlight after The Claremont Independent published an article revealing its existence on Sept. 20.

U PC BREAUX – read “You politically correct, bro?” – is primarily dedicated to sharing memes, many of which joke about and mock a wide range of people and topics, including the Holocaust, Muslims, numerous races, sexual assault, terrorism, mass shootings, suicide, women, disabled people, and transgender people, among other topics.

Members and Content

As of Sept. 28, U PC BREAUX had 205 members, mostly 5C students, and has been active since at least May 2016. While most group members are inactive or post infrequently, a small group of students post regularly and are responsible for the bulk of the offensive content.

The group’s former administrator, who spoke to TSL on condition of anonymity, insisted that they do not support the intolerant and insensitive messages that the memes – many of which they posted – convey.

“There is a difference between finding things funny and actually supporting such things,” the student wrote in a message to TSL. “As suggested by the name of the group, many posts are anti-[politically correct] culture and aimed at people who want to have a laugh rather than take offense from everything.”

This student removed themselves as the administrator after the Independent published its article.

One of the group’s new administrators, a Claremont McKenna College sophomore who spoke to TSL on condition of anonymity, said the memes are reposted from elsewhere on the internet and argued that they do not target specific individuals at the 5Cs.

The memes are “not actually trying to hurt anyone or harass anyone, which is plain silly,” the student wrote in a message to TSL.

However, in addition to memes, group members have shared screenshots of Facebook posts and private Facebook Messenger conversations involving other 5C students, along with disparaging captions.

The former administrator said the offensive memes could prompt productive discussion of political and social issues.

“Political correctness can actually cause prejudice and racism through refusing to have honest, open conversations,” the student wrote. “The group has led to many productive discussions that in many places in Claremont would simply be met with cries about hate speech and privilege.”

However, such discussion seems rare in U PC BREAUX, based on transcripts of several months of posts and comments obtained by TSL.

In some cases, when students attempted to discuss a meme's objectionable content, other group members would dismiss their concerns as invalid because the posts were intended to be humorous, preventing discussion.

In this vein, the new administrator encouraged those who find the group’s content objectionable to ignore it.

“If you can't take a joke, then just look away," they wrote. "Things are meant to be made fun of and parodied – that's a function of language."

U PC BREAUX Exposed

The Independent article that first exposed the group, written by the Independent’s then-managing editor Ross Steinberg PO ‘18, described posts and comments in the group “so vile that they would be right at home in the comments section of The Daily Stormer,” a notorious neo-Nazi website.

On Sept. 22, the Independent’s editorial board fired Steinberg. Steinberg claimed that they objected to the content of his article.

“A lot of them didn’t actually read the article itself before [it was published], and they wished it would have portrayed both sides of the story,” Steinberg said.

The Independent's editorial board responded Monday with a statement accusing Steinberg of making “unprofessional and extortionate” threats to force publication of his article.

Pomona Declares Bias-Related Incident

On Sept. 21, after Pomona administrators saw Steinberg’s article and Steinberg reported the group to administrators, Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum convened Pomona’s Bias Incident Response Team, which reviews cases Pomona believes to be hate crimes or bias incidents.

“The memes were deeply offensive and an affront to our standards and values as a community,” Feldblum wrote in an email to TSL.

The IRT promptly decided that U PC BREAUX’s posts constituted a bias-related incident, and announced its decision in an email to the Pomona community on Monday.

“We reviewed what we had, and it was a quick and easy call for a consensus of the [IRT] that [the memes] were of a biased nature,” said Associate Dean M. Ricardo Townes, who leads the IRT.

The former U PC BREAUX administrator thinks the IRT review is a waste of college resources.

“I'm not sure what they mean by bias,” they wrote. “Most people have bias about most things, which is why it's important that people can discuss things openly and become aware of them. A joke or opinion that someone doesn't like does not make it hate speech.”

The IRT review process is not an investigation of potential policy violations, and cannot directly result in punishments for students, Feldblum wrote. However, a formal investigation may follow.

Next Steps

IRT is still reviewing U PC BREAUX and preparing to make recommendations for further actions to Feldblum, including a potential investigation, which could take two forms – an investigation of breaches of the student code or of harassment and discrimination.

If Pomona treats this case as a violation of the student code, it would be investigated by a staff investigator and adjudicated by the student judicial council.

Speech that, “considered objectively, is abusive and insulting rather than a communication of ideas... 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 is intended "to be abusive and insulting rather than a communication of ideas," violates Pomona’s student code, according to the Student Handbook.

The student code also bans students from using campus computing and network services to “display or transmit abusive images … or messages to an identifiable individual or group of individuals.”

If Pomona decides this is a discrimination and harassment incident, Director of Human Resources Brenda Rushforth would appoint a staff investigator, and a college vice president would determine sanctions.

“Prohibited harassment includes ... derogatory comments or jokes, intimidation, [and] negative stereotyping,” Pomona’s non-discrimination policy reads. “Whether or not the person means to give offense … is not significant.”  To qualify as harassment, such speech must "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."

Ultimately, punishments for students could range from warnings to expulsions, Feldblum wrote.

For the former U PC BREAUX administrator, the stakes are higher than potential punishments.

“Freedom of expression is essential to any successful society,” they wrote. “If even humor, regardless of nature, is being investigated, what's next? Investigating opinions? Thoughts? Are thought crimes going to be a thing? I really hope not.”

Pitzer College, Scripps College, and CMC are not investigating the group, but have been in contact with the IRT. Harvey Mudd College has not been contacted by the IRT and is not aware of any Harvey Mudd students involved in the group, Dean of Students Jon Jacobsen wrote in an email to TSL.

Representatives of Pitzer, Scripps, and CMC told TSL that the schools may investigate the group if Pomona provides information that their students may have violated college policies.

Similar Cases

Based on TSL archives, there is no precedent for an investigation of a private online group or chat at the 5Cs, but such an investigation is not unique outside of Claremont.

Last summer, Harvard University rescinded admission offers from at least 10 accepted students who shared offensive memes in a private group chat, following a similar incident the prior year.

This article was updated on Sept. 30 to more fully reflect the provisions of the Pomona student code and non-discrimination policy.