This past spring, in a small private group message connected to the larger ‘Harvard Class of 2021’ Facebook page, a group of incoming freshmen to the esteemed university were getting to know one another. Perhaps a little too well.
News surfaced in the past couple weeks that ten of of these new Harvard freshmen had their acceptances rescinded following the discovery of their private group chat, in which a series of memes were uncovered, all horribly offensive in nature. The meme’s themes ranged from racism and anti-semitism to child abuse and sexual abuse, with seemingly everything in between. Unsurprisingly, Harvard University was not impressed with the content, and rescinded their offers of acceptance to the school.
This has created yet a new divide in the political climate between those who see the memes as clearly hate-speech, crossing the line of freedom of expression into dangerous and threatening territory, and those who believe that their first amendment rights know no bounds.
This is nothing new, however. Debates like this have been very common recently, especially with the modern spread of information through the World-Wide Web. A debate of free vs. hate speech has been in and out of the spotlight for much of the past few years, and we don’t seem to be any closer to solving it.
However, one thing that many forget is that, while the first amendment is a basic human right, it protects American citizens from censorship exclusively from the government and public groups and foundations. Often in cases like this happening at Harvard, many are quick to add their two cents on how this is censorship and infringing on their right to freedom of expression. However, perhaps they are forgetting that Harvard, a private institution, has every right to deny applicants, or rescind acceptances, based on what they determine to be overstepping a boundary. A patron at a restaurant cannot be arrested for saying something offensive, but it is perfectly within the restaurant’s owner’s right to remove them from the premises.
So, perhaps Harvard didn’t want these ideas floating around in their school, and that is up to their admissions board, but a question of First Amendment Rights? It certainly is not.
Interestingly enough, however, the line becomes somewhat blurry for public schools. While a public school, being a public institution, should uphold the rights granted by the Constitution, public institutions of learning have, first and foremost, a duty to ensure the best possible education for its students. Therefore, while it is encouraged that different opinions are shared and understood, it is encouraged that the sharing is done in a respectful manner that does not negatively impact anyone’s learning. For example, students cannot demand credit for a wrong answer on a test in the name of freedom of belief and expression.
Ultimately, it is not the goal of schools and teachers to silence their students, but to provide a safe a respectful learning atmosphere. So, as long as we, as students, are respectful towards one another and don’t share deliberately offensive content on school-run forums, our First Amendment Rights should not be an issue.