Calm Down, a University Didn't Ban Harambe Jokes

Free speech advocates got upset that the University of Massachusetts Amherst planned to punish students for using Harambe memes, but the school isn't doing anything of the sort.

Sep 6 2016, 6:28pm

Tuesday morning, the internet went through a brief spasm over the news that some RAs at University of Masachusetts Amherst were banning Harambe jokes. This LOL-WTF-Fail moment kicked off with a photo of an email tweeted by a student; the details were a bit confusing but apparently the notably tasteless and mildly amusing Harambe meme was deemed to be a "microaggression" because UMass Amherst had a student living space focused on African and African American heritage called Harambe. ("'Harambe' is actually a Swahili word, which stands for 'the point where people pull together,'" the email read).

Going further, the email's two authors said that the "dicks out for Harambe" catchphrase could be serious business: "Phrases/hashtags which encourage the exposition of body parts runs the risk of being reported as a Title IX incident. These are sexual assault incidences that not only get reported to Community Standards, but also to the Dean of Students. Needless to say, it is a very serious incident—especially for a first year student!"

This email itself seemed like a microaggression aimed at the free speech advocates who oppose what they see as creeping censorship on college campuses. "UMass-Amherst: Harambe Jokes Are Racist Microaggressions, Violate Title IX," read a headline from the libertarian magazine Reason. The Foundation for Equal Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that often battles college administrations on these sorts of issues, was on it as well, writing, "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."

Well, hold on—record scratch—is this actually school policy? Isn't it kind of weird that an email like this would come from two random RAs (who are just students themselves, after all) and not a school official? To sort this out, VICE emailed UMass Amherst's press office and found out that nope, the school is not actually ready to call "dicks out for Harambe" sexual harassment. Here's the entire statement from school spokesperson Daniel J Fitzgibbons:

"As an institution that values free speech and the exchange of ideas, UMass Amherst has not taken any steps to ban jokes or references about Harambe the gorilla.

"The email sent by two well-intentioned undergraduate student resident assistants was a cautionary attempt to advise new students on their floor that the Harambe reference could be considered offensive to residents of the campus's Harambee [sic] community, a residential program focused on African and African-American history and culture, and that all students should be treated with respect and civility. The resident assistants were upholding their responsibility to encourage an inclusive living environment for the students on their floor."

There you have it: The University of Massachusetts Amherst thinks that Harambe jokes might be offensive and being offensive is bad, but doesn't appear to be interested in taking formal (and disproportionate) action against any jokesters. So rest assured, UMass Amherst students, Harambe is alive and well. Well, he's alive and well in your hearts. In real life, he's dead because someone shot him.

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Photo of UMass–Amherst via Flickr user Ryan Scott