This week saw a remarkable collision of free speech, toxic Internet culture and more, unfolding at one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
At least 10 admitted Harvard students in the class of 2021 had their admissions offers rescinded following a group exchange of racist and sexually offensive Facebook messages, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported this week.
NPR Ed tries to focus on the types of colleges that the vast majority of American students attend. But this incident, small as it was, took place during a school year that’s been marked by clashes and riots pitting free speech against hate speech, both online and on campus.
Elite colleges like Harvard are expanding financial aid, but still struggling to assemble classes that represent America’s diverse population. And despite the use of "trigger warnings," the line between hateful memes circulated in chatrooms and the voices amplified in campus auditoriums seems thinner than ever.
Meanwhile, college admissions officers and high school counselors across the country are reminding students that what they say online can hurt themselves and others.
But first, let’s back up and go over the details. According to our reporting and The Crimson, members of Harvard’s incoming class are invited to join an official Facebook group, which is moderated. From there, some students form their own group chats around interests, like studying political science, or being from New Jersey.
The students in question, admitted early last December, formed a group chat known variously as "General F**kups" and "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens." At one time, it had as many as 100 members. They sent each other images with captions that were racist, anti-Semitic and that made light of pedophilia, among other offensive themes.
Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane told us in an email, "We do not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants."
Like other colleges, Harvard has a policy of revoking admissions offers if an applicant does not graduate high school, has plunging grades in their last semester, is found to have lied on their application, or engages in other morally questionable behavior. This can include online speech.
However, university officials and high school counselors we spoke with told us these policies are rarely invoked.
"Most students attend community colleges and public universities that don’t care what memes their admitted students post online," says Jeremy Goldman of the Maryland School Counselor Association. Nevertheless, he says, "we reinforce messages to students to be positive digital citizens in all contexts. Inappropriate, offensive and threatening posts have a much greater impact on students’ and their peers’ emotional and social well-being than … on college admissions."
Stephanie Beechem, a spokeswoman for the University of California system — the nation’s largest — said in an email that officials there do not "actively monitor social media accounts. Social media presence plays no role in our admissions process. As we stated, only if an incident is reported to us that purportedly violates our Principles of Community and/or Student Code of Conduct, will it be investigated in the proper channels."
Nancy Beane is the president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) and a college counselor for 25 years. She says, "colleges can rescind offers for all kinds of reasons," but "from our perspective, it doesn’t happen very often." She says that, nevertheless, she often reminds students: "You have to be responsible for what you say," and if students make mistakes, they should own up to them.
According to The Crimson, some of last year’s admitted Harvard freshmen engaged in similar behavior using a program called GroupMe, which sends group text messages. That time, they were criticized by university administrators, but not individually punished.
But in the past year, the question of what type of speech is permissible has repeatedly arisen on campuses nationwide. Protests, even riots, roiled UC Berkeley, Middlebury College in Vermont, and Alabama’s Auburn University over appearances by right-wing provocateurs Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, The Bell Curve author Charles Murray and white nationalist Richard Spencer. Some states are introducing legislation to protect free speech on campus.
Meanwhile, 43 percent of young people have been called offensive names on the Internet, according to a national study released earlier this year by the nonpartisan think tank Data & Society. And an overwhelming majority, 84 percent, say they have witnessed it happening to someone else.
"We’re around memes all the time," says Wyatt Hurt, an incoming Harvard freshman from Grand Junction, Colo., who was not involved in the meme exchange.
He says fellow students he’s spoken to online overwhelmingly agree that these students should be barred from admission. "You have your First Amendment rights. But when you apply, you sign an honor code to be good and virtuous. Why would we want to have those people in our class?" he asks.
For Monica Bulger, a researcher with Data & Society, the incident is a reminder that, "ignorance isn’t a matter of stupidity."
She says that researchers like herself are increasingly taking an interest in "transgressive behavior" among youth: for example, studying the motivations of cyberbullies as well as the experiences of the victims.
While a lack of mature decision-making skills has always been a hallmark of late adolescence, Bulger says, the online arena allows speech to persist, endure and travel further.
It also creates a sense of distance: "When I’m talking to people counseling students at the college level," she explains, "they’re saying that the students have a lack of awareness of the consequences of harmful messages. The students say, ‘It’s not real. It goes away.’ "