In early June, Harvard University’s daily student newspaper The Crimson broke the news about the University rescinding acceptance offers from 10 would-be incoming freshmen students of the Class of 2021. The students lost their admission after posting offensive memes in a private Facebook group once titled, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” The memes and the institution’s reaction have sparked controversy around the First Amendment, college admission processes, and social media’s impact on both.
Harvard University’s Facebook Group Norms
When students are admitted to Harvard, they are invited to join a moderated Facebook group for their class at large to begin meeting their future classmates. From this group, students often break off to form other groups based on other commonalities, like majors, where they are from, and sports teams.
According to one student, the offensive meme account in question became a spin-off, invite-only group from a larger Harvard student meme group that was born from the moderated group. In order to be invited to the private group, students had to post offensive memes in the original, larger meme thread. Once invited, the private group was a thread of memes that shared anti-Semitic, racist, and otherwise offensive themes.
Social Media and College Admissions
While higher education institutions are able to rescind offers for many reasons, it’s not a regular occurrence. A Harvard spokeswoman stated that the University reserves the right to rescind offers to incoming students for a variety of reasons, including if the student exhibits behaviors “that brings into question their honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
For many institutions, Harvard included, parsing through social media posts is not part of the standard vetting process. However, if someone reports an admitted student’s social profile, then the college will look into it. This is exactly what transpired for the students at Harvard – someone was a part of the community or heard about it and reported the activity to the admissions office.
The admissions office responded quickly by sending an email out to the students-in-question, asking them to write a statement explaining their actions. Whatever their responses were, they clearly did not outweigh their actions and Harvard swiftly rescinded their acceptance offers.
What Does This Mean for Free Speech?
One of the biggest critics of the decision to pull the offers is Harvard Law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz commented that Harvard’s decision punishes students academically for their personal views. He stated, “These actions are not consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment.”
Universities all over the country have become hot spots for free speech discussions, and not only for students. For example, in 2015 a Yale professor resigned over emails discussing halloween costumes. Dr. Erika Christakis sent an email to students in response to one about Halloween costumes from the campus’ Intercultural Affairs Committee. The Intercultural Affairs Committee asked students to be mindful to not misappropriate or misrepresent other cultures while dressing up for Halloween. Dr. Christakis challenged students to make their own decisions and asked, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”
Despite Dr. Christakis email challenging students to use their own decision-making skills when selecting a Halloween costume, her email resulted in students calling for her to resign and catapulted the ideas of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” into discussions about free speech and campus culture and safety.
College-bound Students and Their Online Reputations
For today’s incoming college students, they have only ever known life with social media. Sharing, albeit over-sharing sometimes, is arguably a part of their culture.
However, it’s important for individuals and students to understand the impact of their online actions. The 10 would-be Harvard students most likely assumed their actions were protected by Facebook’s privacy settings on their group. However, it simply took screenshots and someone compelled to report their activity to have a very real consequences affect their future.
When sharing photos, statuses, your location, other personal information, and in the Harvard case, offensive memes, remember that it simply takes a screenshot for some egregious action to live online for a long time — even if you decide to delete a post — and affect your real life and online reputation.