It might have been motivated by genuinely racist intention, it could also have been simply a foolish youthful moment gone too far. Either way, experts tell First Coast News that the UNF students who posted a particular video Wednesday on Snapchat might be facing a lifetime of regret.
"Coming out of school and trying to get a job, that most certainly could affect them," said human resources consultant Suzanne Lemen.
Lemen heads Dynamic Corporate Solutions. From her desk at the company's offices in Fleming Island, she says the case reminds her of repeated cautions to her kids and their peers to be very careful about what they post on the internet.
"Just pushing that 'like' button ... And then that becomes a workplace issue for employees, not even the issue of ‘Should we hire someone?’," she said.
But those who made and posted the video pushed a lot more buttons. The roughly six-second clip shows two young men jumping around awkwardly, mimicking animals. The video appeared with the caption, "What actually went on at the BML (sic) rally," apparently alluding to a Black Lives Matter event on campus.
"Young people – I should say everybody – really needs to think about what they post," Lemen continued. Her point was that many employers comb the online track records of candidates they're considering to fill jobs.
And with the internet, visibility can be as permanent as it is instant and widespread.
"Anything we do now can probably be seen by millions if not billions of people," attorney John Phillips concurred. Phillips specializes in civil rights cases, and although the video is protected as free speech by the First Amendment, he said there's little to protect it from the court of public opinion.
"Truth is the ultimate defense," Phillips said, "So, you don’t have rights when you’ve done something stupid and people are just calling you on it."
Given that employment in most states is legally considered "at-will," Phillips said this means the students can expect little recourse if they're overlooked for jobs.
"You’re not going to find any lawyer that’ll defend you in that case, or any law that’ll take your back on a discrimination case, even decades down the road."
That said, both Phillips and Lemen agree there's hope if there's sincere repentance.
"We see a lot of things pass with time, and they need to watch how [the students] react, particularly now that cameras are paying attention," Phillips said.
Lemen echoed, "Smart employers - ten, twenty years down the road - are probably going to say ‘Okay, that was just a youthful indiscretion’.”
But ten or 20 years is a significant piece of career building and wage-earning time, especially the prime of young adulthood.
"They’ve hurt themselves, their futures, regardless," said Lemen.
"It’s very competitive out there, and if you’re an employer you don’t want to take chances," she continued. "You certainly don’t want somebody in your workplace that’s going to do that kind of thing in the workplace."
It all comes down, she said, to the perceived risks of harassment and discrimination, which can wind up costing employers hefty dollars in court.
"But also drama," she said. "And drama eats up lots of money for the employer because all the time everybody’s talking about it, they’re not working and you’re not making money."
Compounding the potential fallout, Phillips said UNF's conduct policy gives the university "wide discretion" in matters of harassment and discrimination, and that he believes the video qualifies.
"There’s no requirement for UNF to protect that, there’s no requirement for an employment to protect that, meaning to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’ve changed."
Phillips said specifically that the students could face suspension or even expulsion, and that other universities might slam the door as well, jeopardizing aspirations of a degree.
The two reiterate that there can be redemption in time, but that it will take so much longer than the momentarily lapse of reason - if not morality as well - that led to the video and its public posting.
"There’s things you can do to make Google award your name positively," Phillips said. "If you’ve got a great LinkedIn account and you do some good. There are people who have buried mugshots."
"And this is the advice I’d give them," Lemen offered, "that they’ve apologized for it and that it was stupid and they shouldn’t have done it, or whatever, so that an employer, when they graduate, looks that up, also sees that."
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