At least ten prospective students have had their acceptance to Harvard University rescinded after sharing offensive memes in an unofficial group-chat.
The Harvard Crimson, the school’s official school news source, reported Sunday that some students guilty of sharing offensive images would not be allowed to attend the prestigious university. The university openly encourages online interaction between incoming students to make the transition to college more fluid. Like most schools, Harvard sets up an official Facebook group for each incoming class. On the Class of 2021 page students organized GroupMe chats for common interests, one such chat-room was meme-themed.
Apparently, some of the kids set to matriculate to the Ivy League school were not satisfied by the quality or edginess of this first meme group’s jokes. A second “R-rated” group was established from the first. This chatroom, which was more exclusive than the first, reportedly required entrants to prove their worth by posting something edgy or offensive to the original group. Students who posted to the “dark” group were targeted by university admissions staff after an anonymous student sent screenshots to university staff.
The group in question, aptly named, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,” or later seen as “General Fuckups,” contained off-color jokes in meme format; reusable image + commentary, as well as inappropriate or offensive conversation. Some of the memes in question contained racially insensitive jokes. One such meme, featured below as an example, makes light of suicide in a racially derogatory manner.
Dark comedy to be sure, but worthy of such harsh or official punishment?
Screenshots shared to university staff apparently contained jokes that targeted various minority groups, including sexually explicit and anti-feminist jokes. This is not the first time that offensive jokes among incoming students have attracted official attention from the university.
Last year, students of the class of 2020 were engaged in the sharing of offensive memes targeting feminists and minorities. The Crimson pointed out that in last year’s case students were not individually punished because the group was not official and the students had not yet officially matriculated, caveats not applied to the dozen or so young adults who have had their admission rescinded. Last year, links to the groups tainted with insensitivity were merely deleted, and no further action was taken.
In the case of this year’s youngsters, punishment was swift, direct, and non-reversible. In direct contradiction the university’s commitment to free speech, these students are moralistically punished for admittedly “dark ” comedy. Harvard’s “Free Speech Guidelines” affirm the right to even offensive and harmful speech so long as it does not constitute assault or abuse.
The guidelines go so far as to say this: “Because no other community defines itself so much in terms of knowledge, few others place such a high priority on freedom of speech. As a community we take certain risks by assigning such a high priority to free speech. We assume that the long-term benefits to our community will outweigh the short-term unpleasant effects of sometimes noxious views. Because we are a community united by a commitment to rational process, we do not permit censorship of noxious ideas. We are committed to maintaining a climate in which reason and speech provide the correct response to a disagreeable idea.”
Though the conversation and memes posted to the group-chat may have been dirty, it was also obviously non-threatening. It seems obvious that the students in question did not make these memes and that the nature of some jokes was even self-deprecating.
Are these disagreeable memes too dirty? The University’s staunch commitment to non-censorship seems to be in question.
The school’s Free Speech Guidelines did not stop the admissions board from halting the admission of the meme-ers in an unofficial and voluntarily formed group.
The university restricts the right to rescind acceptance to students “if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
Last month at Harvard’s 366th commencement, President Drew Gilpin Faust addressed graduates and alumni in total defense of the freedom of speech and its importance to liberal democracy.
“But the price of free speech cannot be charged just to those most likely to become its target. 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. And that courage means not only resilience in face of challenge or attack, but strength to speak out against injustices directed at others as well.” – President Drew Gilpin Faust
President Faust’s speech was entirely focused on the First Amendment right and came before a well-publicized speech by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerburg has not kept himself out of the limelight recently but has not been the greatest friend to freedom of expression in recent years. Mark Zuckerberg was implicated during the 2016 election in allowing his site to discredit conservative news outlets while pushing liberal stories.