This editorial appeared in the Washington Post.
Reports that Harvard College rescinded admission offers to students who had posted extremely offensive memes in a private Facebook chat come at a time of heated debate about free speech on campus. So it probably should have been expected that the school's decision would become ensnared in that discussion. It would be a mistake, though, to conflate the recent events at Harvard with any kind of attack on free speech.
What happened at Harvard is simply this: Misguided young people with an outsize sense of entitlement have been required to suffer the consequences – about which they had received sufficient warning – for ugly and inappropriate behavior. Harvard was right to insist that those who are granted the privilege of attending the private institution adhere to its standards.
At least 10 high school seniors, prospective members of Harvard's Class of 2021, had their offers of admission revoked in April after administrators learned they had traded offensive messages and racist images. Screenshots of the chat obtained by the Harvard Crimson, which first reported the events, show images that mock sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children, including calling the imagined hanging of a Mexican child "piñata time." There has been no comment from Harvard, which, according to a spokeswoman, doesn't publicly discuss the admission status of individual applicants.
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Critics of the decision were quick to accuse the school of censoring speech it doesn't like and they gleefully seized upon Harvard President Drew Faust's commencement address last month that was devoted to free speech and the dangers of censorship. But when students receive an offer of admission from Harvard, they are clearly told – and must acknowledge – that it is conditional and can be withdrawn for, among other things, "behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character." The information was repeated on the Harvard College Class of 2021 Facebook group. The offending students opted to splinter off into a secret group, showing they knew they were being offensive. Someone (good for them) tipped college authorities to the odious posts.
The students still have the right to post whatever garbage they like, but it is also Harvard's right – indeed, its obligation to its mission of developing leaders – to exercise judgment in deciding who will be admitted to its educational community. Harvard gave these young people a needed lesson in civility, honor and personal responsibility. Let's hope they put it to good use – and that others are paying attention.