A teachable moment, but not censorship, at Harvard

Cambridge, MA- May 04, 2017: The Johnston Gate at Harvard Yard in Cambridge, MA on May 04, 2017, MA on May 04, 2017. (Globe staff photo / Craig F. Walker) section: metro reporter:
The Johnston Gate at Harvard Yard.

An Ivy League course on the consequences of dumb and offensive behavior on the Internet just played out at Harvard. And for at least 10 kids who had already been admitted to the university, the fallout of sharing offensive images among themselves were profound and potentially life-changing.

By now, the story is well known: The teens were part of a larger Facebook group chat where they posted the vile images as Internet memes. When the university discovered the content, it rescinded their admission.

A debate about free speech has ensued, pitting Harvard as the ruthless censor clamping down on kids goofing off. But that’s the wrong way to look at the controversy. Like all universities, Harvard has wide discretion in its admissions process. Had the school discovered the memes before the students were accepted at the school, it’s safe to guess that Harvard would have denied them admission, period, without triggering a free-speech brouhaha. The college admissions process is inherently subjective. There are many considerations, including that of judgment, character, and ethics, and sharing puerile and offensive posts is generally not the path to the Ivy League.


Needless to say, Harvard reserves the right to rescind admission at any time before enrollment, for many reasons, including whether the prospective student engages in behavior “that brings into question their honesty, maturity, or moral character.” It’s tough luck for the admitted applicants, perhaps, that they weren’t yet officially Harvard students when the images were discovered. If they were, the university’s response might have been different; student-athletes who were recently caught writing offensive, sexually charged lists about classmates were not expelled from the school.

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It’s likely the meme-sharing students, who had been admitted to the class of 2021, were trying to impress each other, engaging in the type of silly, provocative one-upmanship that teens gravitate toward. It’s not likely that the students, who included the daughter of a major Harvard donor, were going to start committing hate crimes when they arrived in Cambridge. But they did show a marked lack of judgment. Among the posts: a suggestion that child abuse was sexually arousing; sexual jokes about the Holocaust; and an image that poked fun at suicide and Mexicans with a piñata.

Did the school miss an opportunity to educate those students about their foolish actions? Perhaps, although the incident remains a teachable moment for the kids nonetheless. And Harvard’s swift response sends a reassuring message of the importance of principles, civility, and standards for the rest of the university community.

Censorship, this is not. The students remain free
to express themselves with any offensive or provoca-tive memes they choose. And should the students choose to reapply to the college someday, they should be able to write quite an essay about learning lessons the hard way.