Last month, Harvard College revealed that it had rescinded its admission offers to 10 incoming freshmen for the students’ involvement in a private group chat where they created and exchanged “obscene” memes.
The memes that caused the college to rescind the offers contained a variety of jokes involving race, child abuse, school shootings, the Holocaust, and more. For example, one of the memes had the caption “when you’re tryna sleep but your neighbor is beating his kids” above an image of a cartoon character with an implied erection. Another had the caption “when the mexican kid hangs himself in the school bathroom” above an image of a pinata and the words “pinata time.”
Harvard’s admissions policy as well as a disclaimer found on the official class of 2021 Facebook page indicates that any behavior which “brings into question” an admitted student’s “honesty, maturity, or moral character” is grounds for rescinding that student’s admission offer. Presumably, Harvard admissions officers believed these memes so seriously called into question the moral character of the students who posted them so as to justify rescinding its admissions offers to those students.
While Harvard may credibly argue that the students’ free speech rights were not violated due to the fact that the students had yet to matriculate, its response is nonetheless disturbing for its eagerness to punish students based on subjective standards. In an attempt to show that it is morally superior to anyone who would make a mean joke, Harvard has enforced its slippery standard of “good character” and surveillance on its incoming students.
Many argue that the students exercised poor discretion. But it is Harvard’s judgment that has been more troubling. Rather than craft an objective rescission policy and apply it fairly to the admitted students in question, it pursued an inquisition into the moral character of the students based on the justification that it didn’t want students of “questionable character” on its campus.
It is easy to nod and agree with Harvard’s justification, especially if you were personally offended by any of the memes. Yet even if those of us offended by the memes profess to never making similar jokes in other contexts (a doubtful proposal, given the huge popularity of edgy humor and hyperbolic statements), we should still worry about the sliding standard Harvard uses. Of course, it seems reasonable that a college would want to reserve the right to retract students’ admissions under certain objective criteria, like academic dishonesty or a conviction for a violent crime. But Harvard has shown a willingness to broadly interpret its admissions standards to punish admitted students for speech which would become fully protected once they matriculate. Why does Harvard promise full free speech rights to matriculated students but subject its admitted students to dubious standards of “good character”?
If a prospective student can have their offer to college rescinded for private conversations which might indicate “questionable character” to an admissions committee, then surely any of us who has ever talked about drug and alcohol use, insulted anyone, or had sexually intimate conversations over private chat should be running for the hills. “Questionable character” is a subjective and ill-defined attribute.
Thus, this standard is a blank check to the admissions officers at the university: a knife Harvard keeps at the ready in the event that it needs to cut loose any admitted student whose actions might cause a damaging PR scandal if allowed to fully matriculate. Under this policy, Harvard may admit a student who has admitted to illegal drug use online but rescind the admission of a student who makes a mean joke in private chat because the latter student caused a public outrage while the former did not. Through this standard, Harvard exercises massive power over the moral space its students are permitted to occupy. The administrators who apply the standard seek not to have their students reevaluate their ideas and morals during a rigorous intellectual process of learning; rather, they seek to clumsily mold the morals of Harvard’s students by ejecting those seen as unorthodox by “the campus community.”
In the end, unfortunately, it’s par for the course for Harvard. This is the same university that is seriously considering banning students from joining any club which is “exclusionary,” and which Heterodox Academy ranked as one of the most politically homogeneous and hostile to free speech. This policy and its aggressive application by Harvard is just one example of how campus administration police student values and debase the concepts of free speech, free association, and viewpoint diversity. It is distressing that one of the world’s most prestigious universities has so little faith in the resilience of its students that it seeks to protect them from the danger of seeing an offensive meme or not getting accepted into a club. Harvard’s actions display an attitude of paternalism which young students nominally go to college to escape. Students deserve to be treated as the adults they are — not the fragile children Harvard apparently sees them as.
The worst part about all of this, however, is the naked hypocrisy. This May, Harvard president Drew Faust gave a commencement speech that lauded free speech:
Our values and our theory of education rest on the assumption that members of our community will take the risk of speaking and will actively compete in our wild rumpus of argument and ideas. It requires them as well to be fearless in face of argument or challenge or even verbal insult.
How can the “wild rumpus” of debate “in the face of insult” be the core value of a college that throws out admitted students for off-color memes and threatens to do the same to students who dare to freely associate in private clubs? If Harvard truly cared about free speech and open discussion — even with the risk that feelings might get hurt — then its actions wouldn’t be so antithetical to these values.
If Harvard continues to assault the principles of free speech and free association while paying lip service to these values, bright young students who aren’t afraid to disagree and be offended will start applying elsewhere. Then, perhaps, Harvard will remember its duty as a university and once again live up to its prestige.
Ethan Greist is a student at Johns Hopkins University and a FIRE summer intern.
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...