The Snapchat photo, revisited and reconsidered

A Civic Project story

Former Indiana University of Pennsylvania student Katelyn J. Hecei. Photo taken and provided by Hecei.

By Emilee Larkin

INDIANA — Katelyn J. Hecei was a freshman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Dec. 8, 2015, when her roommate took a photo of a group of African-American students in the Stapleton Library, posted it to the video-messaging application Snapchat and labeled the students as “monkeys.” The image and caption went viral on social media, including Twitter and Facebook.

Hecei (HE-see), 20, of Warren, Pa., said she was a friend of her roommate and expressed shock that she would do something like that.

“The way her post made my friends feel broke my heart,” Hecei said in a March 6 Twitter message. “A campus where diversity was celebrated was tainted by one person.”

Hecei said she faced some backlash, too. She said some people on campus assumed she felt the same way as her roommate because they were friends.

“It went on for about a week, the messages to me and the random bangs on the door at night,” Hecei said. “But after I reached out to some students, I felt cleared of any issues.”

Hecei lives in Phoenix, no longer an IUP student.

“I stopped attending IUP because the environment wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of,” said Hecei in a March 30 Twitter message. “The whole place felt so toxic. The people were rude and didn’t care about other people.”

Hecei said she still thinks about the Snapchat incident and its impact.

“I still think about how much what one person says can hurt another, or a whole race,” Hecei said.


ON DEC. 9, 2015, THE DAY AFTER the Snapchat photo was posted, IUP president Michael A. Driscoll addressed the campus in a letter titled “Concern About University Climate.” That evening, he addressed an open-air protest at Wallwork Hall.

The Dec. 8, 2015, Snapchat photo and caption, copied from the WTAE-TV website.

The letter avoided direct mention of the Snapchat incident and encouraged the campus to “come together as a family.”

“My concern is not about a single incident or some specific sequence of events,” Driscoll wrote.

Driscoll’s allusion to a sequence of events may have been a reference to a fight between two black men that broke out at the library’s circulation desk late in the afternoon before the Snapchat photo was posted, according to library faculty.

Driscoll’s letter continued: “It is not just about free speech, stereotypes, civility, or prejudice—although all of those are important parts of the discussion. It is not about creating a place where each of us is comfortable. Rather, it is about how we come together as a family to challenge ourselves to grow individually and as a collective.”

During Driscoll’s evening remarks to protesters, students twice asked about disciplinary action against the photo-taker. Driscoll declined to provide details. But he responded.

“I can say that we’ve engaged with the student and we’re considering what steps we’ll take next,” he reportedly told the crowd.

Pablo B. Mendoza, assistant to the president for social equity, said the Snapchat incident surprised members of Driscoll’s cabinet.

“All of us on cabinet were surprised,” Mendoza said in an April 19 interview in his Sutton Hall office. “We all got behind the president to assist him in any way possible.”

 

AFTER THE INCIDENT, students and faculty members moved to raise awareness of racism, diversity and inclusion on campus.

Members of the Racial Justice Coalition for Change demonstrate in front of Stapleton Library at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Sept. 2, 2016. Photo by Logan Hullinger.

The IUP Racial Justice Coalition for Change started as a result of the Snapchat, according to Melanie D. Hildebrandt, a sociology professor at IUP. Before the spring 2016 semester began, students and faculty members organized the group.

In January 2016 the group initiated a series of rallies against racism and for diversity. The rallies have continued on the first Monday of every month outside Stapleton Library, site of the offensive Snapchat photo.

Hildebrandt said she helped start RJCC after she and other faculty members thought something needed to be done.

“To come back and act like back to business as usual was really an eraser of the pain,” Hildebrandt said in a Feb. 28 interview in her McElhaney Hall office.

 

MICKAYLA R. SELEMBO, 20, of Latrobe, is a sophomore at IUP. Selembo was a friend of the student who was identified as the Snapchat photographer. Selembo was in the library with the woman when the Snapchat was taken. Selembo said she saw the woman take a photo of a group of African-American students but had no idea what it said until later.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania Student Mickayla R. Selembo. Photo taken and provided by Selembo.

According to Selembo, her friend was not permitted by IUP to return for the fall 2016 semester and decided to take off the spring semester of 2017, as well. Her friend still rents an apartment off-campus, Selembo said.

Selembo said her friend is sorry but only because she got caught.

“I think she is sorry, but her character is still the same,” Selembo said in an April 6 interview in Stapleton Library.

Selembo said her friend is not a bad person, but she does not condone her actions.

“We were really good friends, and she was always there for me,” Selembo said. “But I think what she did was wrong.”

 

LUCY T. RAYMOND, 20, of Pittsburgh, was Selembo’s roommate at the time of the Snapchat incident. Raymond said she was “friends by association” with the purported Snapchat photographer. But she was disgusted by the Snapchat caption.

Former Indiana University of Pennsylvania student Lucy T. Raymond. Photo provided and taken by Raymond.

“People think they can say whatever they want because of free speech,” Raymond said in an April 11 Facebook message. “Which is true, but they also have to deal with the possible consequences of their words.”

Raymond said she revealed the photographer’s name on Facebook and Twitter. She did so because she felt “played.”

“I welcomed her into my room and gave her my food and let her stay in my bed,” Raymond said. “The whole time she was a racist and just using me for my things.”

Raymond said she also revealed the student’s name because she thought the reactions of other people would make her see how serious the Snapchat incident was.

Raymond said she is no longer a student at IUP for reasons unrelated to the incident.

 

IN A TEXT-MESSAGE CONVERSATION on March 10, the purported Snapchat photographer said she is still a student at IUP. However, her name is not listed in the IUP directory.

Pixelated photo of student identified as Dec. 8, 2015, Snapchat photographer. Image taken from social media postings.

She insisted that she did not do it. She said another female student posted the racist Snapchat. She did not name the student.

“Did you notice how my name was never released?” she said in a March 19 text message. “That’s because I wasn’t the one who posted the Snapchat. A ‘friend’ set me up.”

No evidence has been presented by her or by the university to support her charge or, for that matter, any other charge from any other source related to the Dec. 8, 2015, incident.

The woman said campus police and the Office of Student Conduct handled her case poorly.

“The school handled it like complete shit, no regard for my health or well-being,” she said. “The officer I went to for help turned me in to Student Conduct.”

In an April 10 series of text messages, the woman denied allegations that she posted the offensive Snapchat content.

“I was set up,” she wrote. “Someone put my full name and picture on the internet and before I could do anything about it, it was all posted on the internet WITHOUT my involvement or consent.”

She concluded: “If you want to do a story on something worth anything, do it on how people should be careful what they post on the internet.”

After initially agreeing to meet for an interview, she said in a text message on March 19 she did not want to answer any questions and asked to remain off the record. (See sidebar, “How this story was reported,” below.)

 

THE SNAPCHAT INCIDENT presents a conflict both racial and legal, say sources involved with civil rights and with civil liberties. And this presents a dilemma for administrators at public universities.

The message about “monkeys” may be an expression of hate speech. But public hate speech is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Attempts by public universities to regulate offensive speech were struck down decades ago. In their place, university speech codes have resurfaced as harassment policies, according to the nonprofit Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

IUP’s student-conduct code is administered by Michael W. Lemasters, associate vice president for student affairs, living-learning and well being. Lemasters said harassment or offensive speech could be a violation of the “obstruction or disruption” student conduct policy.

Michael W. Lemasters, IUP associate vice president for student affairs, living-learning and well being, Ruddock Hall, March 29, 2017. Photo by Emilee Larkin.

The policy reads: “Obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedure, or other university activities including its public service functions, or of other authorized activities, and/or the performance of duties of University personnel.”

The university must allow freedom of speech, Lemasters said. But it also must follow school policies on harassment when a case like the Snapchat incident arises.

“We live in a society, even in a public university, where people can say stuff that we find hurtful or harmful,” Lemasters said in a March 29 interview in his Ruddock Hall office. “But we have to look within our code to figure out how we can, or if we’re going to, deal with it.”

Lemasters’ circumspection reflects a delicate question for the university: How did it deal with the alleged Snapchat student photographer? If it punished her for her speech, as her friends reported, then it may have violated the First Amendment, according to the Pennsylvania branch of the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia.

“It’s a free-speech issue, a First Amendment issue,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of ACLU Pennsylvania in an April 25 phone interview. “There should be no sanction for what she did. If she withdrew, no violation. But it’s a First Amendment violation if she was punished, including expelled, suspended or sanctioned, for this.”

Lemasters would not confirm whether the student still attends IUP, as she asserted, despite her absence from the campus online directory. He added that any student could request to be removed from the directory.

In a followup interview on April 19, Lemasters said he did not mean to suggest that the student was directly punished for violation of the university conduct code. Instead, he said he meant that the policy provision he cited is one that could have been violated in the incident. He concluded that he could not comment on any sort of punishment that the student faced directly from IUP.

 

AMIRAH T. MACON, 22, president of the IUP branch of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she recalled members expressing mixed feelings about the controversial Snapchat image.

“Some people were really furious about it and others were like, ‘She said what she wanted to say,’” Macon said in an April 19 interview in Stapleton Library.

Macon said she supports freedom of speech, but said people should be mindful of what they post on social media.

“I feel as though you should really monitor what you say on your social media because you never know who’s going to see it or who you’re going to offend,” Macon said. “There’s certain things you shouldn’t say at a university that’s supposed to be diverse.”

Emilee Larkin, an IUP senior majoring in journalism, is from Pittsburgh.

Logan Hullinger contributed reporting.

 

Sidebar: Race and racism by the numbers at IUP

INDIANA — A Twitter poll of Indiana University of Pennsylvania students who follow the Twitter accounts of IUPSpecials, IUPMatches, IUPNation, IUP_Confessions, IUPStudents and AsSeenAtIUP was conducted March 6-9. The survey asked students about racism on campus.

The text of the non-scientific survey read: “Doing a story on diversity/racism at IUP. DM me if you’d like to share your experience. Have you experienced/witnessed racism on campus?”

According to Twitter, 4,307 people saw the survey, and 384 responded. More than a third of respondents — 39 percent – reported that they had experienced or witnessed racism on campus, while 61 percent said they had not.

A December 2016 Campus Climate Study reported results of a scientific survey of 414 IUP students. Nearly half of respondents — 48 percent — said the campus was mostly free of racism, 31 percent said they “occasionally encounter racism,” and 20 percent said they “regularly encounter racism.”

According to the study, some students said they were comfortable with the social climate on campus. However, different groups define comfort levels differently.

African-American students reported feeling “unwelcome, unsafe, and invisible,” the study said.

Meanwhile, the numbers of white students decreased from 11,875 in 2012 to 9,278 in 2016, a 22 percent drop, according to IUP’s office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment. The population of African-American students decreased from 1,466 students in 2012 to 1,358 in 2016, a 7 percent decline.

 

Sidebar: How this story was reported

INDIANA — The woman identified in the accompanying story as the photographer and originator of the racist Dec. 8, 2015, posting on the video application Snapchat was named in social media in the days following the incident at the Stapleton Library at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The HawkEye has not published her name for two reasons:
* She requested anonymity, and
* publication risked compounding harm to reputation and career prospects.

The woman’s photo also was posted on social media. The HawkEye altered one of those photos to mask her features and published it with this story.

The woman corresponded with a reporter and an editor for The HawkEye during the reporting for this story. She provided reaction to and verification of events and allegations surrounding the Snapchat incident.

However, the woman concluded correspondence with retroactive demands to grant her anonymity and to put her remarks off the record. The HawkEye granted the first request but not the second.

The HawkEye texted the woman on May 5 to advise that publication of the story was imminent. She responded with a series of short questions. When a phone conversation was suggested, she did not respond.

 

Sidebar: For more information or to get involved

For more information about the topics addressed in this story or to get involved in the issues raised, contact the following:

Michael A. Driscoll
President
Sutton Hall 201
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: Michael.driscoll@iup.edu
Web: http://www.people.iup.edu/driscoll
Phone: (724) 357-2200

Michael W. Lemasters
Associate vice president for student affairs, living-learning and well-being
Ruddock Hall G37
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: Michael.Lemasters@iup.edu
Web: http://www.people.iup.edu/mlemaste
Phone: (724) 357-2696

Melanie D. Hildebrandt Ph.D.
Department of Sociology
McElhaney Hall 112C
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: Melanie.Hildebrandt@iup.edu
Web: http://www.people.iup.edu/melanieh
Phone: (724) 357-7635

Pablo B. Mendoza
Assistant to the President for Social Equity
Delaney Hall B17
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, PA 15705
Email: Pablo.Mendoza@iup.edu
Web: http://www.people.iup.edu/mendoza
Phone: (724) 357-3402

Amirah T. Macon
President
IUP NAACP
Email: HHRT@iup.edu
Web: https://iup.collegiatelink.net/organization/NAACP

ACLU Pennsylvania
Witold “Vic” Walczak
Legal director
1800 John F Kennedy Blvd.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: (215) 592-1513
Web: https://www.aclupa.org/abouttheaclu/staff/

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
510 Walnut St., Suite 1250
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Phone: 215-717-3473
Email: fire@thefire.org
Web: https://www.thefire.org/

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