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Monday, June 19, 2017
Maelstrom Follows Harvard's Decision to Rescind Admissions Offers
It's been less than a month since Harvard very publicly revoked admissions offers to ten students over offensive memes shared in a private Facebook group. At first blush, the rescission was a deeply satisfying form of schadenfreude-the jokes ranged from the Holocaust to child abuse. Still, it took little time for legal scholars and education experts to weigh in with admonitions about the chilling of free speech.
From a legal perspective, Harvard has done nothing wrong. The First Amendment protects the rights of private citizens against any restrictions on free expression by the government. Harvard is a private institution. In fact, the university has clear rules of their own, reserving the discretionary right to accept or deny admission to any student for any reason.
Still, horrifying as the memes were, legal scholars warn that punishing even this sort of highly offensive speech poses a threat to the policing of all speech. These warnings are coming from some of the most well-known, politically progressive legal minds in the country. Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz called Harvard's decision "a serious mistake". Constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, a Harvard alumnus and the incoming dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law, wrote an opinion piece criticizing Harvard's actions, stating that "speech should not be punished by a campus just because it is offensive, even deeply offensive".
Many students feel the university made the right choice in taking an intrepid stand against hate speech. (One of the students whose admission was revoked is reportedly the daughter of a major donor). The move goes a long way in assuring students that bigotry and violent rhetoric won't be tolerated on campus. But Dershowitz and others say that the end simply doesn't justify the means. Punishing speech of any kind sets a perilous precedent.
At worst, Harvard's decision may represent a threat to free speech on university campuses, a right that Harvard itself has defended vigorously. At best, the very public rescission should serve as a cautionary tale to all students: be mindful of what you post on social media. It is never, ever truly private.
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