How Do the 5Cs Respond When Campus Politics Go Viral?

A mural painted by students of color on Pitzer College’s “free wall” received backlash online after an article went viral, the artists receiving death threats even weeks after the article’s publication. (Adela Pfaff • The Student Life)

From a demonstration by Claremont McKenna College students of color to a mural at Pitzer College about the cultural appropriation of hoop earrings, political and social debates at the 5Cs have increasingly gone viral, and sometimes made national headlines.

This attention can come with severe side effects – students can be targeted for their words and actions online by people outside of the 5Cs, have their personal information released, and even receive threats of violence.

Last year, multiple students received death threats. Three Pitzer College students were severely harassed after they painted a mural calling out cultural appropriation, and several Scripps RAs received death threats after hanging posters demanding recognition and compensation for their emotional labor.

Students have also been doxxed (had their identities and personal information published online) after becoming involved with campus activism about charged political topics, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict.

These incidents can leave students shaken and afraid, and they sometimes seek out their college administrators for support. College protocols for responding to the incidents seem to be variable and unspecific, relying heavily on situational circumstances.

“If such an issue were to arise, the College would work closely with the student(s) to understand [the] scope of matter and the administration ... to determine appropriate support and follow-up actions to try to ensure that the affected student(s) feel safe in their residential environment and supported in their academic endeavors,” Harvey Mudd College Vice President for Student Affairs Jon Jacobsen wrote in an email to TSL.

Jacobsen added that HMC's honor code, other college policies, and state and federal laws could come into play, depending on the situation.

“Such actions are indeed troubling for their role in undermining the core educational mission and values of Harvey Mudd College,” he wrote.

Pomona College’s policies are similar.

“The College is committed to supporting students in these situations,” reads a section of a Pomona FAQ page on social media and the press addressing how students should respond when their quotations are published on media sites. “As soon as a situation arises, students can contact the on-call dean.”

The FAQ says the support provided will vary based on the situation, but may come from the Dean of Students office, the Communications office, Campus Safety offices, counseling resources, and/or other offices and resources depending on the situation.

The FAQ further advises students to monitor their social media accounts’ privacy settings and follow the sites’ procedures for reporting unwanted harassment or doxxing.

“In more aggressive or damaging situations, student conduct hearings, reputation protection services, and law enforcement are additional alternatives, as is civil legal action, if factually supported,” the page adds.

Scripps College and Claremont McKenna College policies align with those of Harvey Mudd and Pomona, and begin when students reach out to administrators for support.

Scripps recently updated its harassment and discrimination policy to specifically prohibit online harassment, Karen Bergh, Scripps' spokeswoman, told TSL.

CMC students who experience harassment based on protected class status can also contact chief civil rights officer Nyree Gray, and all students can make an anonymous report through the CMCListens portal, CMC spokeswoman Joann Young told TSL.

Representatives of Pitzer were unable to provide TSL with a comment on before press time.

Some students who have experienced these situations firsthand said their colleges’ responses were inadequate.

Alegría Martinez PZ ’18 and two of her friends, who painted the hoop earrings mural, were harassed online and received a death threat from individuals outside the colleges after they were named in a Claremont Independent article that was picked up by national conservative media. 

When the Independent article was published and they began receiving personal threats, the students expected a Pitzer representative would reach out to support them, but were disappointed.

“We didn’t actually have anyone reach out to us – we had to go to them, so that was kind of frustrating,” she said. “I’m a Resident Assistant, and I was thinking first maybe my Residence Director would come talk to me about the whole thing.”

The day that Martinez’s friend received a death threat, the three students contacted Pitzer administrators and met with Vice President for Student Affairs Brian Carlisle, the RDs, and Kirsten Carrier, Pitzer’s director of residence life.

In the meeting, they were told there was very little Pitzer could do.

“[Carlisle] is a lawyer, so he tried to tell us that these are just comments, they’re not threats, so we couldn’t really do any legal action with it,” Martinez said.

Beyond issuing a public statement condemning the comments Martinez and her friends were receiving, Pitzer did little to support them, Martinez said.

“It didn’t feel very reassuring. It wasn’t really like ‘don’t worry,’ it was just ‘we can’t do anything,'” she added. “We were still really worried.” Martinez did acknowledge, however, that Pitzer’s potential actions were limited in this instance.

Carlisle offered to involve local police to provide extra security for the students, but they declined out of concern for peers who would not be comfortable with police officers on campus.

Martinez and her friends later met with Pitzer President Melvin Oliver, who did not offer much additional help, Martinez said.

“He also wasn’t very reassuring,” she said. “He said to lay low basically, to try not to do anything that’s going to get you more attention.”

TSL contacted Carlisle with questions about this incident, but he declined to respond, and referred TSL to Dean of Students Sandra Vasquez, who was unable to comment before press time.

Other students who have been targeted online have not felt comfortable approaching their school’s administrations for support.

Simone Bishara PZ ’18 had her personal information, including photos, screenshots of her social media accounts, and numerous specific details about her public statements and social media posts, activities, and actions posted on a website dedicated to doxxing pro-Palestinian college activists.

Bishara subsequently received hateful messages on her social media accounts, but was not willing to seek administrative support from Pitzer.

“[Pitzer] had often been my adversary throughout the organizing that led to my inclusion on the list. It felt unnatural to rely on them in any way for support,” she wrote in an email to TSL.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Scripps' harassment and discrimination policy was updated in response to death threats received by students. The policy was updated, but not in response to death threats, which the college did not confirm were received by students.