Harvard: where private jokes can get you expelled

Harvard College, the undergraduate liberal-arts college of Harvard University, recently revoked the admissions of at least 10 prospective students because they shared several crass memes in a private Facebook chat. The private chat, titled ‘Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens’, was formed as an offshoot of an official Harvard College group intended for admitted students to network and prepare for the upcoming year. Within the private chat were memes and messages making light of sexual assault, the Holocaust and child abuse. One of the jokes called the hypothetical hanging of Mexican children ‘pinata time’. Another described child abuse as ‘sexually arousing’.

These jokes are crude, tasteless and at times genuinely vile, but what’s far more disconcerting is the public response to this case. Many folks are responding with variations of ‘Good, they all get to learn that speech has consequences’. Harvard, being a private university, is not beholden to the First Amendment, though that doesn’t make this any less concerning. Clamping down on free speech is bad enough, but these exchanges occurred in a private chat group, not a public one. In fact, the official Facebook group that’s managed by Harvard states on its page that it is ‘not responsible for any unofficial groups, chats, or the content within’. So if the administration has already placed distance between itself and any extracurricular shenanigans that may occur, why are these students being punished in the way that they are?

The university’s admissions policy states that it reserves the right to revoke admissions if the student ‘engages or has engaged in behaviour that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity or moral character’. But there are a few factors that suggest the rescinding of these students’ places is less about taking a stand for sound morals and more about public relations and the university saving face. The university administration was tipped off by a couple of members of the group. The existence of it would likely not have become public knowledge otherwise. Now that the offending memes and jokes are out in the open, the university has gone into damage-control mode, and has responded with moralistic public posturing.

But, in any case, gallows humour is no reasonable gauge of a person’s moral convictions. To conflate these students’ private jokes, ugly though they were, with their real moral character is ridiculous. Crucially, these messages were sent privately. None of them was intended to upset or harass anyone. But going by the public response, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were. Once again, offence culture on campus is rearing its ugly head. Now, even private jokes can constitute a moral transgression. This should remain a damning mark against Harvard’s name.

Jacob Sund is a sociology student and writer based in Winnipeg.

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