Harvard’s social media police are playing a dangerous game

Of course, any member of Harvard College represents the university itself. Source: Shutterstock

There is no darker place on social media than the deepest corners of meme culture.

With content mocking atrocities such as the Holocaust and child abuse, disturbing only comes close to describing some of these posts.

The sharing of this negative and hateful content is disconcerting, but should that warrant the stripping of hard-earned opportunities like an offer to one of the best universities in the world?

This is what happened to at least 10 Harvard College applicants last month when administrators withdrew their offers, purportedly due to their social media misadventures. According to The Harvard Crimson, the applicants had shared racist and sexually offensive memes in a private Facebook group chat named “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”.

Whilst Harvard College does have a responsibility to produce educated and judicious students, when it comes to its right to police private social media messages, the lines are blurred.

If we are held accountable for any private online conversation, freedom of expression will be fundamentally limited. Source: Shutterstock

If one thing is clear though, it is that from a moral standpoint, the content shared in the meme chat is utterly indefensible. The Harvard Crimson found the group chat was a spin-off from the official Facebook group for students of the Class of 2021, meant to be a platform to share entertaining memes. One member of the chat referred to the hanging of a Mexican child as “Piñata Time”, whilst others proposed child abuse as sexually arousing.

Clearly, these posts have no place in the increasingly progressive and more inclusive society we should all be committed to promoting.

It is, therefore, somewhat understandable why Harvard College made the decision to revoke the students’ offers; after all, why would they want hateful and obscene students as part of their prestigious institution?

In the description for the official Class of 2021 group, Harvard’s Admissions Office wrote:

“Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behaviour that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

And of course, any member of Harvard College represents the university itself, so it is valid the university did not want these students under their academic roof – especially since the group chat name affiliated its members to the university.

But, the notion of authoritative bodies taking action on individuals for private communications is a dangerous game to play. What gives an institution the right to impose their subjective moral compass on what they deem unacceptable?

If we are held accountable for any private online conversation, freedom of expression will be fundamentally limited. No longer will we have the liberty to push the boundaries of language and historical context in creative expression, even in one-to-one communications; instead, we will be restricted to conforming to whichever moral issue is in vogue.

Of course, spreading hateful content about the Holocaust is not acceptable, but not being allowed to spread hateful content about the Holocaust would not only be more unacceptable, but an infringement on our rights to freedom of expression.

The censorship laws of countries such as China and North Korea are often criticised for being manipulative and dishonest due to the warped presentation of the world the laws create. Access to Western news outlets are blocked, Western social media sites are restricted, and the freedom of speech against governmental powers are not protected as they are in the West. The censorship in action in these countries are far-reaching – citizens aren’t given free access to information, meaning they aren’t allowed to draw their own conclusions about world issues the way the Western world is able to.

China’s censorship laws of countries prohibits its citizens to draw their own conclusions about world issues the way the Western world is able to. Source: Shutterstock

Harvard College seems to be mirroring this illiberal ideology by withdrawing offers to students who posted material they deem unacceptable on a private chat forum.

This action is dangerously close to controlling what people see, say and think through implicative punishment. As a world-renowned institution with a diverse community of international students, the school should be advocating the progressive right to freedom of expression, and combating problematic views through healthy debate and social education, rather than the outright banning of people clearly keen on walking its hallowed hallways.

After all, shouldn’t university be about breaking cultural limitations down?

Shouldn’t it be about steering our young away from the wrong to the right, teaching them boundaries and good values, and how to gain a better world view?

The withdrawing of offers for online activity that does not fit in with the institutions’ affiliated views will be negative for both students and society on the whole. By rejecting applicants for having morally problematic views, a liberal echo chamber in the institution will arise, whilst inappropriate views will be left unchallenged as they continue to fester in the outside world.

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