Should students be tossed from campus election for Twitter transgressions? | Opinion

OPED-HENNEBERGER-COLUMN-KC
At the University of Missouri, the whole student government election was called off, and will have to be rescheduled, over some of the”racist,” “homophobic” and “ableist” online comments three student politicians made years ago.

In 2012 and 2013, when she was 14 years old, Claire Jacobs seemed to think that “nigga” was a really cool word. “First boyfriend was a scrawny lil nigga,” she tweeted, along with a photo of her also-white, also-gawky baby friend.

Now, as a result of that and other, similar posts, she’s been shamed out of the race for University of Missouri student body president, as have two other candidates for student leadership positions.

In fact, the whole student government election was called off and will have to be rescheduled over some of the “racist” “homophobic,” and “ableist” online comments the three made years ago. When they decided to run for campus office, a student journalist found and circulated the offensive tweets, and all three issued mortified, abject apologies.

The chairman of the Board of Elections Commissioners said this “created issues and concerns about the legitimacy of them running,” especially given the history of “marginalized communities around campus.” The board suspended the election while it looked into potential infractions under the handbook, but found nothing regulating past behavior.

Current Missouri Student Association president Nathan Willett, who returned my call to his faculty adviser, says he called the three candidates in and told them that they hadn’t lived up to the high standards required of school leaders. Willett urged them to put the university first and think about whether staying in the race was really the right thing to do. “It was a learning experience,” he said.

But is the lesson that holding wrong ideas as a kid is disqualifying as a young adult and beyond? The school has referred the students’ past comments to its civil rights and Title IX office.

We parents warn our kids that they should be careful about what they post, because it might be held against them some day. But we didn’t know that the online record of where they started out could be turned into a brickbat by their own peers.

You’d think their fellow students would understand better than anyone that no one wants his test-run trying on of various personas to represent his grown-up, or at least growing-up self.

Judging the posing postings of young teenagers so harshly is so counterproductive that one wishes there were one or two adults on the case in Columbia.

If there were, they’d surely check the Maoist tendencies of those junior inquisitors who will one day look back on this chapter and wish they’d been a little more generous.

Student journalist Brett Stover found that Blaine Thomas, who had been running for student body president, tweeted five years ago that, “Japanese pitchers shouldn’t be allowed” because “they are on … weird ass, oriental herbal shit.”

Four years ago, Thomas tweeted to a friend that she was “SO gay,” and said that “All this talk about Michael Brown is pointless. White or Black, if you try to grab a cops gonna get shot … Stop being so sensitive.”

Caius Gillen, who’d been running for vice president, tweeted two years ago, as a freshman, that he was “about to watch a black man swim for the first time. College truly is the best place for new experiences.”

The black friend he and some others had given his first swimming lesson that day wrote about that backstory this week.

But just as Gillen’s friend didn’t know how to swim until someone taught him, Gillen didn’t know better than to revert to stereotypes until someone taught him.

It’s to our shame that these ancient ideas about race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation endure. But if not knowing any better until we get out into the world and meet others unlike ourselves makes even teenagers irredeemable, then we might as well give up on America.

Some students also sneered at the candidates’ apologies. “Imagine Richard Nixon to the Washington Post: ‘Watergate was who I was in the past,’ ” tweeted another student journalist, mocking Jacobs for saying she’d changed.

But she isn’t Nixon, and offensive tweets from children aren’t a constitutional crisis. In fact, Jacobs made a lot more sense than her attackers did when she said that “today, I do not tolerate speech like this … This is a lesson of allowing those around you to have room to learn and grow.”

That these students aren’t being given that room is a disservice that I hope doesn’t make them bitter. Especially as they can’t help but notice that they’re being held to a higher standard than our current commander in chief.

Melinda Henneberger is an editorial writer and columnist for the Kansas City Star.  @MelindaKCMO