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Harvard draws the line on free speech


FREEDOM OF SPEECH is not just “freedom from censorship,” Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, just told the Class of 2017. It is “freedom to actively join the debate as a full participant.”

So much for that lofty theory. When it comes to practice, Harvard University just rescinded acceptances for at least 10 prospective students, the Harvard Crimson reports, after they traded sexually explicit memes and messages targeting minority groups, in a private Facebook chat. According to the Crimson story, by Hannah Natanson, the admitted students formed a messaging group entitled, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” and sent messages and other images “mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children.” One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”


That’s ugly language, allegedly coming from young people entitled — and dumb enough — to post it without worrying about the consequences. But there’s also something creepy about Harvard’s policing of it — especially since Faust dedicated her 2017 commencement address to a passionate defense of free speech and the battle raging over it on campuses across the country, from trigger warnings to the rights of conservative speakers to address college audiences.

“Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones,” Faust told graduates on May 25 (in a speech that also referenced the next act, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg). “We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them.” According to the text of her speech, posted on the Harvard website, she also noted, “We must support and empower the voices of all the members of our community and nurture the courage and humility that our commitment to unfettered debate demands from all of us.”


Many will agree these students crossed a line and forfeited the right to engage in unfettered debate, at least at Harvard. But what’s the next line of unacceptability? What if a private Facebook chat involved a screed against Elizabeth Warren, expressed support for a Muslim travel ban, or labeled as fascist Harvard’s effort to ban social clubs? Private schools write their own discipline codes. But with this action, Harvard is sending a message with a classic free-speech chill: You can say anything — but not here.

The issue of revoking admission has come up before at Harvard, most recently involving the case of Owen Labrie, the St. Paul’s graduate who was accused of sexual assault. While never formally confirming that Labrie was barred from attending Harvard, a spokesman at the time told the Crimson, “An offer of admission can be rescinded if a student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

If you’re convicted of a crime, the decision to withdraw an admission offer makes sense. If you post something offensive on a private Facebook page, that’s a very different standard of judgment. After this, why would any prospective student take the risk of posting anything remotely edgy? And could enrolled students, not just newly admitted ones, be expelled for posting similar thoughts?

According to the Crimson, admitted students found and contacted each other using the official Harvard College Class of 2021 Facebook group. The admissions office, which maintains the official page, warns students that it takes no responsibility for unofficial spin-off groups, which is what this group formed. Students are also told their admissions offer can be rescinded under specific conditions — behavior that calls into question “honesty, maturity, or moral character.”


Harvard just drew one line to define what that means. Where will the next one be drawn? That would be a good topic for next year’s commencement speech.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.