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As a purely hypothetical exercise, let’s consider what might have happened if incoming Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Alexi McCammond – who is the subject of protest from the magazine’s employees over racist and homophobic tweets she posted back in 2011 at the age of 17 – had channelled her angst into a physical crime, rather than a series of bigoted outbursts on social media. Let’s say aggravated assault with a weapon, to choose a totally random example for this entirely theoretical scenario.

In the state of Illinois, where Ms. McCammond was a student at the time, aggravated assault is considered a Class 4 felony if a firearm is used. A Class 4 felony comes with a prison sentence of one to three years, and may include a fine of up to US$25,000 and up to 30 months of probation. Ms. McCammond likely would have avoided that severe of a punishment, however, because she would have been a juvenile at the time of the offence (although the precise circumstances of the event would’ve determined how exactly her case would have been handled).

Had she been tried as an adult, however, criminal reform advocates and progressive activists could have used her case as just one example of the injustice of trying children as adults, perhaps leaning on the reasoning of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in Roper v. Simmons about the sociological and scientific factors that distinguish juveniles from adult offenders. They might have championed a restorative or rehabilitation-focused approach to her punishment, after which – and certainly a decade later, in 2021 – many would have welcomed her reintegration in society.

It’s interesting to observe, then, how social attitudes toward what she actually did appear to offer less allowance for rehabilitation and growth than had she committed a physical crime. (Of course, it depends on who you ask; tough-on-crime conservatives might wave away racist tweets from a 17-year-old, but insist that a juvenile who discharges a firearm should be locked up for a decade.)

There is certainly no defending what Ms. McCammond put on Twitter back in 2011. In one tweet, she wrote, “now googling how not to wake up with swollen, asian eyes …” In another, she wrote, “Outdone by Asian #whatsnew.” Ms. McCammond apologized for the tweets in 2019, but she was criticized for calling the tweets “deeply insensitive” rather than “racist.” Employees for Teen Vogue have now written a letter to parent company Condé Nast, questioning the decision to hire Ms. McCammond as the magazine’s editor-in-chief.

This episode raises the question – a rather evergreen one nowadays – of how long an individual can reasonably be tied to his or her offensive opinions or even bigoted statements, from the past. There are procedures that can be followed when it comes to actual crimes: Someone who discharges a firearm during an assault is allowed the opportunity to chart a new course after just a few years, although convicted felons still may, for example, be denied housing because of their criminal records (which, I would argue, is unduly punitive and counterproductive to the ultimate goal of reintegration).

But there are no mandatory minimum or maximum social sentences for someone who espouses racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic views. And there doesn’t appear to be much allowance, as there is in the criminal justice system, for the fact that juveniles can be immature, susceptible to influence, impulsive and reckless as compared with adults.

One could argue that a 17-year-old is close enough to adulthood – which is what a prosecutor might say in requesting a transfer to an adult court – and that an individual should know by that age that racism is wrong. That’s fair enough. But the question is not whether Ms. McCammond’s tweets were acceptable, but whether it is reasonable or serves much rehabilitative purpose to hold her accountable for them a decade later, and after she already apologized for them. Ms. McCammond’s work in recent years – reporting on progressive politics in the United States, the #MeToo movement, on racial inequality – should demonstrate that the person who tweeted about “Asian eyes” a decade ago won’t be the one leading the team at Teen Vogue.

Ms. McCammond is just one of many people who have been and will continue to be asked to grapple with their worst behaviours from even a decade past. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired (then rehired) by Disney when his old tweets joking about rape and pedophilia resurfaced. A couple of Republican lawmakers called for New York Times political editor Tom Wright-Piersanti to be fired over past tweets about Jews and “Mohawk Indians.”

Some will recover from these incidents better than others, but there appears to be no statute of limitations on when and how some will call for present accountability for past opinions, even if the offender was a teenager at the time.

The progressive opinion toward criminal justice is toward limited punishment, leniency for young offenders and a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration. Why should our collective attitude toward social offences really be that different?

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