Overheard at UMass: Controversy looms in the popular Facebook group

Is the meme group infringing on students’ free speech?


(Photo courtesy of Overheard at UMass)

Abigail Gracie, Writer

AMHERST —  UMass Amherst is home to a plethora of interesting pages online, one for almost every entity on this campus. 

For example, @umass_bananas on Instagram features random students caught off guard eating bananas, because it is arguably the most awkward food to eat. This page is the reason why I cut up my bananas before eating them.

Then there’s Overheard at UMass.

It began as a public Facebook group on December 19, 2007 by Mika Casey, a former UMass student to “post those conversations you overheard on UMass campus that just must be retold. Memes are cool too,” he said. 

“It’s so cool cause we create our own memes and inside jokes. And if you weren’t in the group, much less at UMass, you wouldn’t get them at all. So it’s a fun little community,” said junior journalism major, Jesse Kolodkin. 

It then grew into a private empire with over 17,000 members where more than just light-hearted fun is posted. UMass quickly figured this out and forced the group to close from the public eye.

“I think to them it’s a relatively large [Facebook] group that often takes potshots at administration. And right now there is nothing more terrifying to any corporation/administration/business than a bunch of young people making memes,” said Kolodkin.

But recently, this page has become increasingly controversial by more than just UMass administrators. 

The controversy began when Casey blocked a student who dresses up as Spiderman around campus, solely because there were a plethora of posts about him. 

Students were obviously upset about this, calling Casey out in posts and comments. Then they started to wonder where he got the authority to block someone who brings light-heartedness to the community. Even though he is an admin, Casey no longer attends UMass and is therefore not involved in the community as much as the students who are currently enrolled, who all mostly know and love Spiderman.

After receiving backlash, Casey released a message looking to hire another administrator to help filter through the multitude of posts that stream through the group every day. So he hired junior psychology and Spanish major, Alyssa Rose. 

That’s when the team started deleting every some-what political and controversial post and comment in the group. 

For example, last week, two adult men walked onto campus and were holding posters and preaching about religion outside of the W.E.B. Du Bois library, which is a heavily trafficked area between classes. One poster read “Evolution is a lie” while the other read “Sin Awareness Day.” They each were yelling homophobic ideals and preaching radical Christian beliefs. 

Many students on the liberal college campus were clearly shocked and upset with the words coming out of the adult males’ mouths so they resorted to the media. Videos and pictures were up immediately in Overheard to spread the word about what was going on. A student even got arrested because he took one man’s stool and threw it off the balcony next to the library. Other students kissed people of the same sex in front of the men to get a rise out of them. 

Each post sparked a different debate. Students were arguing left and right over the evidently controversial issue. But then again, they were allowed to do so, as this was an important event that happened in our community.

But then, every single post from that day disappeared. No more controversy. No more intellectual debates.

“This is not to belittle or silence the beliefs or views of the poster, but it is simply to maintain a respectful understanding environment,” said Rose in a post on Tuesday. 

However, students in the group think differently, especially after the two admins posted a list of topics banned from the group, along with the attitude that is supposed to be maintained. 

“Everything that was posted WAS overheard on THIS campus. Unfortunately, politics do come up on campus and they ARE overheard and overseen by people and subsequently posted. Just because ignorant people comment on them and spark controversy isn’t a reason to disregard those posts,” commented Olivia Plante, a senior psychology and sociology double major, on the same post. 

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Rose encouraged students to talk about politics anywhere but the Facebook group, solely because arguments were breaking out on almost every post. 

“It began to get incredibly nasty on the more polarizing posts, and that’s not the environment we want for the group,” she said in a direct message.

But by not allowing students to talk about politics, along with other things they choose, students are wondering whether their first amendment right of free speech is being compromised.

“You cannot filter politics out of real life and you can’t filter political events that are occurring at UMass… It’s our right to be able to view that and keep up to date with what’s going on on campus. No one wants or encourages fighting in the comments but there are ignorant people who comment ignorant things that require a response,” said Plante in a direct message. 

This generation has often been criticized for its sensitivity. While this has made an improvement in our society, are some people, especially these admins, being too sensitive? If someone wants to post something, it is in their right to do so. As long as what they’re saying isn’t hate speech or offensive, shouldn’t that person be allowed to do so?

The admins want to make the group back into an easy-going space, however, not everything on this campus, or in life, is easy-going, yet these things are still important and worth mentioning. Because the group is so big, it serves as a news outlet for what is going on on this gigantic campus. 

It may have started as a simple, light-hearted media outlet, but times have changed and so has the nature of Overheard at UMass.

Email Abigail at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @agracie13.

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