Harvard University – June 2017

University rescinds acceptances over students’ social media posts

Cambridge, MA

Harvard College rescinded the acceptances of 10 incoming students after they posted offensive memes in a private Facebook group. Many of the images they shared targeted minorities or made sexually explicit references.

Important Figures

Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, as well as Erica Goldberg, a former Harvard Law School professor, publicly defended the free speech rights of the incoming students. “Punishing students academically for their political views or their personal values is a serious mistake,” Dershowitz told The Boston Globe. In a blog post, Goldberg wrote that “Harvard should not teach its students to be afraid to joke in private, among people willing to joke back. Harvard should not teach students to turn on each other for speech.” Further, she compared the memes to the “irreverent” game Cards Against Humanity.

Further Details

In a private Facebook group titled, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” a group of incoming Harvard freshmen shared offensive “memes,” images overlaid with short textual captions. This group was formed as an offshoot of the official “Harvard University Class of 2021” Facebook group, which is maintained and monitored by Harvard officials. The Washington Post reports that in the description of the official group, the admissions and financial aid office makes clear that Harvard is “not responsible for any unofficial groups, chats, or the content within” and reminds students that “Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.” In order to gain admission to the private, meme-focused group, students were required to post a provocative meme in the official group. This is how college officials became aware of the private activity.

Harvard has not commented on the rescinded acceptances, due to a policy precluding public discussion of the admissions status of individual applicants, The Post reports. According to The Harvard Crimson, Harvard representatives emailed certain students requesting that they provide every image they had shared in the private group. They also asked the students to “submit a statement . . . to explain your contributions and actions for discussion with the Admissions Committee.”

According to The Crimson, the memes in the private group mocked “sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children.” Some of the memes specifically targeted minority racial or ethnic groups, such as the meme cited by The Crimson that called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

The public and private social media activity of college applicants is playing a growing role in the admissions process, according to The Post. In a survey conducted by Kaplan Test Prep, 35 percent of “admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students,” reports The Post.

The previous year, a group of incoming Harvard freshmen formed a private GroupMe message, in which they shared provocative and racially-charged communications. However, The Crimson reports that the college did not discipline the students involved in that episode.

Outcome

Ten Incoming Freshmen Had Their Acceptances Rescinded

Due to content shared on their personal social media accounts, 10 students had their acceptance revoked by the Harvard Office of Admissions and Financial Aid.

Negligible Student Reaction and Public Outcry

While some, including Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz and former Professor Erica Goldberg, have advocated for the free speech rights of the incoming students, there was relatively little criticism directed toward Harvard’s decision.

External References:

Harvard withdraws 10 acceptances for ‘offensive’ memes in private group chat, The Washington Post

Harvard Rescinds Acceptances for At Least Ten Students for Obscene Memes, The Harvard Crimson

On Harvard and Humor, In a Crowded Theater

Here are the Memes That Cost 10 Students the Chance to Attend Harvard, The Daily Caller

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017