After members of two conservative-leaning campus groups were exposed for sharing racist memes, both the Pitt College Republicans and Polis Media released separate statements claiming these members’ actions were not associated with their organization.
The Twitter account Racists @ Pitt started sharing screenshots from a GroupMe chat titled “The Meme Stash to End All Meme Stashes” Wednesday. The anonymous account’s thread — which gathered more than 85 retweets and almost 200 likes by Thursday night — prompted Polis Media and College Republicans to respond.
It is unknown who created the GroupMe chat, but it contained four members of Pitt College Republicans and three contributors to the student media website Polis Media, the groups confirmed. Polis’ Twitter and website went offline Thursday night.
Pitt College Republicans condemned the group chat in a statement on Twitter and said the club members involved in the chat are no longer part of the organization.
“These screenshots contain offensive material that the College Republicans find utterly repulsive and do not condone in any way, shape, or form,” the statement said.
College Republicans Public Relations Director Conor Guiser said the club suspended four members who were in the group chat when club officers found out about it in September. But after the posts were made public Wednesday, the club reevaluated and decided to remove the four members.
“It is unfortunate this happened because this is not at all what the [College Republicans] are like,” Guiser said. “We make no apologies for what they did because they did it on their own time, and we would never condone this behavior.”
Also in a statement on Twitter, Polis Editor-in-Chief Arnaud Armstrong — who denies participating in the chat — said it existed as to “facetiously share produce very inappropriate memes out of curiosity for seeing the what the worst of the internet could produce.”
“[Polis Media contributors] were not in such a chat to celebrate the images and the messages inherent in them,” Armstrong said, adding that regardless of the reason, participation in the chat was “clearly inappropriate and below the standards we expect of contributors to our site.”
The memes shared in the chat include jokes about statutory rape and the Holocaust. One meme depicts a young African-American boy looking at a piece of cotton candy and saying, “You mean I don’t have to pick it and I can eat it?!”
Two of the students who, screenshots show, shared memes — Julia Henke and Devon Valinsky, both on the Polis staff — released statements regarding their involvement in the group chat.
Henke said it was a poor decision to be involved in the chat and said she was “distraught at the idea of these disgusting memes being used to make judgement on my character.” In a similar statement, Valinsky said he “realized how severe of a mistake” he made.
Both students, however, said accusations calling them racist or anti-semitic are false.
Valinsky said he was resigning from his position as an officer of College Republicans and communications director of Polis. Armstrong said Henke tried to resign, but he declined the resignation because he has “confidence in her character.” Valinsky and Henke declined interview requests from The Pitt News.
Several additional names appeared in the screenshots. The Pitt News has reached out for comment but they did not respond in time for publication.
Screenshots also show Armstrong was a member in the chat, though there is not proof indicating he shared images himself.
“If I was in the chat for any period of time, I didn’t participate,” he said in an email. “Whenever I saw the images (I do not recall whether I saw them during the existence of the chat or shortly after), I was obviously uncomfortable with them, but I also understood that they were shared with facetious intent and certainly not reflective of the beliefs of those who shared them.”
Pitt’s Student Government Board responded to the Tweets in a statement Thursday, saying the board “condemns racism, anti-Semitism, and hate in and and all forms.”
In an email Thursday night, Pitt also released a statement condemning racism and saying the campus “embraces diversity.”
“We want to make clear that racism and anti-Semitism have no place on our campus and run in stark opposition to our core values,” spokesperson Joe Miksch said. “We encourage all members of our community to report potential incidents of discrimination, bias or harassment.”
The anonymous Twitter account that sparked this controversy has made other claims about hate-related incidents around campus in various posts since its first Wednesday. At this time, we have no information on the validity of those posts, but Miksch said the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is looking into the allegations.
This story will be updated if new information becomes available.
Contributed reporting by Janine Faust, Christian Snyder, Jordan Mondell and Salina Pressimone.