Harvard Meme Revocation

Ted Yarmoski, Asst. Opinion Editor

Imagine being accepted to the prestigious Harvard University and months later being told your acceptance is worthless because college administrators disliked something you sent in a private chat. This is exactly what happened to 10 incoming Harvard freshmen who were sharing memes with each other.

         Around 100 incoming freshmen initially part of a Harvard Class of 2021 official group decided to create their own group chat dedicated to memes. This group stemmed off to create a chat for “R-rated memes” that were deemed inappropriate for the first chat. These memes were “mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children,” according to the Harvard Crimson. Harvard administrators discovered the chat and decided that at least 10 of the applicants’ acceptances should be withdrawn after requiring them to retrieve every message they sent to the private group chat and to give the messages to admissions officers. All of these decisions, monumental to the lives of these teenagers, were made in a matter of days.

If Harvard were a public university, their actions in this situation would be unconstitutional as a state entity  cannot discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint. Since Harvard is private, the college was allowed to reject these applicants. However, if this had happened at a California college, this action would have been prevented as  California grants First Amendment protection to students at private colleges and high schools (Leonard Law), the only state in the country to do so.

Their punishment should have been more thought out and much less severe as to not contradict progressive education values and to show students that they can find places where they will not be thought policed. Erica Goldberg, former Harvard Law Professor and Assistant Professor at Ohio Northern Law School, also argued that the college’s punishment was too severe and serves as a bad example.

She said that students need to be aware that their ideas will be met with opposition, but should also have outlets where they can practice free speech with people of similar mindsets. Goldberg also addressed the need that many teens have that involves pushing boundaries and testing limits to rebel against societal norms.

“A major appeal of irreverence is its assertion of independence over strong social norms,
Goldberg wrote on her blog, inacrowdedtheater.com. “Strong, prevailing social norms can feel oppressive at times, even if they are good norms, and the rebellion of breaking social taboos demonstrates that we can still think for ourselves.”

People have a right to express themselves, no matter the content of their expression. Although this speech can come with consequences, students should not be taught to be afraid of sharing provocative humor or thoughts with their peers by being delivered the highest level of punishment that could be offered to them by Harvard over one incident not even affiliated with the university.

Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang wrote that dark humor has harmful effects on the brain, citing social science studies. However, neuroscience shows that teens have undeveloped minds and therefore are much more likely to make poor decisions. This, in combination with a rebellious nature, will result in these dark memes being shared.

Many sitcoms and comedians use jokes that go against societal norms for a shock factor. They also expose many societal expectations that contradict each other. This may be why those applicants found these memes funny; the shock factor and the explicit going opposition to traditional values. In a WBUR article by Joanna Weiss, this issue is addressed.
“Speech that skirts the edges of propriety sometimes has a purpose: To cleanse, to examine, to shatter expectations,” Weiss said.

Humor should be encouraged, not frowned upon. It can help ease up conversations on important issues and open more topics up for discussion by making traditionally unapproachable topics approachable. Society should not take ideas and block them off to prevent anyone from poking fun at them. It should be recognized that humor goes against expectations by nature.

While the description for the 2021 group chat does state that, “Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity or moral character,” it also disclaims all administrative responsibility for “any unofficial groups, chats or the content within,” this meme group chat included. With this policy, it does not seem fair to punish the applicants for content not affiliated with Harvard as they received no warning that it would be policed, no boundary for what ideas or humor they could share before crossing a line–or what brings into question honesty, maturity or moral character for that matter–and definitely no heads up that they would be required to disclose all of their messages sent to a private group chat.

“A failed attempt [to joke about serious topics], at an impressionable age, doesn’t amount to a firing offense. Especially because it’s impossible to establish what the hard-and-fast boundaries really are,” Weiss said.

None of the images put any other student’s life at risk and were shared for the sole purpose of ironically poking fun at topics widely considered offensive. I doubt that these students, who were accepted to Harvard, support the Holocaust or sexual assault. The variety and number of dark topics joked about in the memes shows how the teenagers did not actually believe in the subjects but simply  found the ironic and offensive nature of them to be humorous.

This group chat sounds strikingly similar to the commercially sold and hugely popular game “Cards Against Humanity” where the objective is to be as offensive as possible. Should everyone who has played this “controversial” game be denied entrance into a job, college or an institution?

Harvard made the wrong decision in denying entry to these students instead of offering alternative, less permanent punishment. Participating in dark humor in a private chat with peers should not result in a denial from a college. Students should be taught that there are venues where irreverent ideas can be discussed and that they will not be harshly punished for doing so.