Column: Memes, Harvard and the First Amendment

What we share on social media can be found by anyone.

Ellen Ailts

Last week, Harvard University rescinded the admissions offers of at least ten prospective students upon discovering obscene and explicit memes exchanged by the group in a private Facebook chat. The decision sparked a national debate over such instances involving free speech on college campuses.

Ours is a potentially treacherous age for young people to navigate; the gravity of our online presences and the importance of being a conscientious online citizen are lessons we’re all still learning. We should conduct ourselves in a way online that we also would in real life, with the added knowledge that nothing on social media is private — recalling the old “Would you want your grandmother to see this?” rule.

The rising ubiquity of social media is coupled with the paradoxical fact that our current culture is often vehement and harsh in its judgment of others based on instances of questionable speech. Outrage and self-righteousness seem to be the name of the game on both sides of the aisle as of late, and college campuses across the country have felt the aftershocks of this polarized political culture.

Though the memes were crude and distasteful, there is the question of giving these students the benefit of the doubt — these memes might not be reflective of the students’ character, but simply of teenagers with transgressive or satirical senses of humor, looking to prove their edgy, comedic sensibilities to each other.

The memes could be argued to be unintended for political or intellectual scrutiny — however, the incident is representative of how Harvard feels it is best to deal with instances of offensive speech. Though college campuses, Harvard included, are self-proclaimed institutions in which intellectual challenge and confrontation are to be expected, there is a brand to be maintained, and students are to reflect positively on the culture of the school. It then follows that it is impossible to have a totally free and open forum, knowing that your ideas and tastes may be subject to ferocious indignation, or perhaps even your dismissal from the University.

Ironically, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust’s address at Harvard’s 2017 Commencement focused heavily on defending the right to free speech for all, and implored listeners to enable and nurture environments in which honest and complex thought can thrive.

“[We] must remember that limiting some speech opens the dangerous possibility that the speech that is ultimately censored may be our own,” she said, looking out over a crowd of future leaders, executives, and policy-makers. “If some words are to be treated as equivalent to physical violence and silenced or even prosecuted, who is to decide which words?”

During such a politically and, by extent, socially divisive time, we will continue to encounter thoughts and opinions that offend us; this should be an invitation to listen to all ideas, including those which are morally repulsive and offensive, so that we can learn how to better challenge them.

Having our perspectives and morals consistently challenged will require a certain level of courage and resilience; we should, when called for, make judgments, question, and oppose the views of others, but when structures of power alone decide what speech is so offensive that it requires extreme punishment or silencing altogether, our right to free speech rests on a very slippery slope.