We live in a time when what we choose to post on social media can be instantaneous, while being easily deleted five minutes later if we decide that we no longer like it. However, what many people, particularly young adults, still fail to realize is that although we can “delete” our posts and they will no longer appear on our feeds, screenshots are forever. This was the case for incoming students at Harvard University. According to NBC News, members of the Harvard Class of 2021 Facebook group created a subsect that featured explicit memes, mocking “sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children.” Harvard’s admissions office has since rescinded the acceptance letters of at least 10 students, but the question remains: what punishment will be enough to make people think before they post? Before I delve deeper into the question, here is my short answer: I don’t think that there is one.
The recent scandal involving incoming Harvard students is a unique case in regards to the legality of rescinding the admittance of students. In these types of cases, we tend to hear people discussing the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and how it is believed to be encroached upon more and more by the “politically correct.” Legal experts made it clear to NBC News that students do not have First Amendment recourse under these circumstances, though. Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia University Law School, said, “The First Amendment’s Free Speech protections apply only to violations by public entities and since Harvard is a private university the First Amendment does not apply. These students have no right or entitlement to admission to Harvard …” Franke goes on to add that Harvard has complete agency to determine who they welcome into their community, especially when someone is in violation of the university’s “ethics and policies against hate speech.” Personally, I am glad that such a standard is set in place and would like to see a method employed in public institutions to prevent the same situation from escalating from online to the physical campus setting. Despite the disturbing nature of these internet memes and the fact that they have no place in any context, there is the undeniable truth that if brought to any campus, the dangerous themes could escalate further. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the university to deliver repercussions for these online behaviors before they intensify to further unsafe levels.
Nonetheless, despite taking appropriate action, revoking these students’ acceptance letters will likely still not be enough for other students who will inevitably make the same or similar poor judgments. Further, at what point does it stop being considered poor judgment because they posted it and start being considered unadulterated bigotry because they actually took the time required to conceptualize the idea, create the meme and then post it for others to see? The “poor judgment” reasoning seems to act more frequently as a scapegoat for a more severe problem. Young people hear remarks made cavalierly by leading figures and internalize them. Recently, NY Daily News reported that at the present time, comedian Bill Maher will not lose his job, despite his use of a racial slur during his June 2 episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The lack of retribution for Maher’s deplorable actions enables young viewers, among many others, to view that speech as acceptable. Then, in turn, they modernize its delivery on the platforms that they have grown comfortable expressing their unfiltered thoughts upon. If there is any way to impress upon young people that their actions will have consequences, these consequences need to be felt at the higher levels, where remarks and actions seem to be brushed off more routinely.
Going to any private institution is a privilege and the students who are now being refused admittance to Harvard took that for granted. In contrast, the internet is becoming less of a privilege and more of a breeding ground for individuals who find their power behind a screen and through the impersonal touch of a keyboard. If we are to see any improvement of what we see on the internet, we need to expect more not only from our youth, but also those who are meant to be guiding them in the best and most productive way possible.