Harvard admission decision prompts debate over free speech

Cambridge, MA- May 04, 2017: Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, MA on May 04, 2017, MA on May 04, 2017. (Globe staff photo / ) section: metro reporter:
Craig F. Walker/globe staff
The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library in Harvard Yard in Cambridge.

A nationwide debate has erupted over Harvard University’s recent decision to rescind admission offers to at least 10 students because of extremely offensive memes they posted in a private Facebook chat.

Some higher education specialists call the punishment appropriate, but others say that Harvard ignored its own claim to embrace free speech and that it missed an opportunity to educate those students about their poor choices.

“I don’t know what lesson these students have learned, other than to keep their mouth shut,” said Will Creeley, a senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, based in Philadelphia.


The incident comes at a time when free speech has become a flashpoint on college campuses across the country. Concern about acceptance and inclusivity has in some cases led administrators to curtail what might otherwise be seen as students’ freedom to act and speak how they choose.

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This is true at Harvard, where for the past year the school has been embroiled in a debate about whether the university can punish students for clubs they join off campus. Few on campus seem to support a group of off-campus, exclusive all-male social clubs, but many students, professors, and alumni nonetheless say the university went too far in trying to punish members by restricting their on-campus privileges.Administrators, meanwhile, say the clubs foster a judgmental and unsafe culture that Harvard does not condone.

The recent incident involving the Facebook memes took place in April, when administrators were sent copies of memes that students had posted in a private group chat on Facebook whose members had been admitted to the class of 2021.

The messages made sexual jokes about the Holocaust, implied that child abuse was sexually arousing, and poked fun at suicide and Mexicans.

Harvard has declined to comment directly on the situation but did say the school reserves the right to withdraw admission for a variety of reasons, including if a student engages in behavior “that brings into question their honesty, maturity, or moral character.”


One of the students who lost her seat is the daughter of major donors to the university, according to correspondence reviewed by the Globe.

News of the rescinded applications comes less than two weeks after Harvard President Drew Faust used her commencement address to passionately defend free speech.

“We must remember that limiting some speech opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own,” Faust said in the speech.

“If some words are to be treated as equivalent to physical violence and silenced or even prosecuted, who is to decide which words? Freedom of expression, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said long ago, protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate. We need to hear those hateful ideas so our society is fully equipped to oppose and defeat them,” she said, according to an online copy of her remarks.

Creeley, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the organization has seen a spike in the past decade of faculty and students disciplined for online speech that sometimes has nothing to do with their official capacities at the school. The Harvard case was unique because the students had not matriculated yet, he said.


In some instances, administrators overreact, Creeley said, citing a Yale lecturer who resigned in 2015 after she came under attack for challenging students to stand up for their right to wear Halloween costumes that could be construed as offensive.

‘I guess you could say there is no free speech at Harvard; there is only speech of which the administration does not disapprove.’

“I can help but think that no matter how offensive these jokes may be to most if not all, that there’s been an opportunity missed in terms of the possibility of educating these students,” Creeley said.

Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, author, and former board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Harvard should not have rescinded admission since the students made no actual threats against people, she said.

“I guess you could say there is no free speech at Harvard; there is only speech of which the administration does not disapprove,” she said.

Others disagree. Jonathan P. Epstein, a senior vice president at the higher education consulting firm Whiteboard Higher Education in Waltham, works with college administrators daily and said he has heard little objection.

“From what I’ve heard, counselors have been telling students for years . . . that anything that you do online is essentially part of your application,” Epstein said.

Harvard did not tell students they can’t make those jokes, he said, but simply that it does not want students who act that way to attend the school.

Howard Gardner, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said this is not a question of free speech. Any community needs to observe certain standards, and admission to Harvard is a privilege, he said in an e-mail.

“The students have learned a lesson that they will never forget,” he said.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Laura Krantz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.