Jewish students at Harvard applauded the school’s decision to rescind the admission of a group of incoming Freshman who shared racist and anti-Semitic memes in a private Facebook group.
“The university will be a much better place without their toxic influence,” Gabriel Dardik, an incoming freshman to Harvard wrote to the Forward in an email. “I don’t know why anyone would find these jokes funny.”
The Harvard Crimson first reported the withdrawal of acceptance to at least 10 students as of April, after the students posted a number of offensive or inflammatory memes. The memes include racist depictions of Mexicans, and jokes about the Holocaust, pedophilia and child abuse. One pictured a penguin sitting in front of an oven saying, “nice! My Jews are almost done!”
Several students reportedly emailed screenshots of the offensive memes to the university, prompting the move.
“Some of these jokes were morally reprehensible beyond what is normal in comedy,” said Talia Weisberg, a recent graduate, in an interview with the Forward. Weisberg, whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors, said the images of the Holocaust were particularly offensive.
Weisbeg said Harvard students enjoy sharing funny memes, but not like these. “Mainstream memes are mainstream memes,” she said. “But you don’t see those really dark memes unless you go in real dark, yucky corners of the internet.”
Gabriel Karger, a rising senior at Harvard, said he saw no problem with Harvard rescinding the admission of students who “spread hateful content like those memes.”
Karger said that anti-Semitism like that was neither welcome at Harvard nor reflected school’s campus, “which is a wonderful place to be a Jewish student,” he said.
The now-booted students joined a large Facebook group for incoming freshmen, where thousands of people shared mainly innocuous memes. A smaller number of students then formed a splinter group in December — where they shared other, “dark” memes.
An incoming freshman told the Tab, a student news site, that several students emailed screenshots of the offensive memes to the administration, alarmed that the images had crossed a line of some sort. According to the Crimson, the university then emailed students about the memes in mid-April.
“The Admissions Committee was disappointed to learn that several students … were sending messages that contained offensive messages and graphics,” an e-mail from the administration to the students read, according to the Crimson. “We are asking that you submit a statement by tomorrow at noon to explain your contributions and actions for discussion with the Admissions Committee.”
Harvard has not commented on the individual student’s cases, but university policy holds that the school can rescind offers to accepted students based on behavior that brings into question “honesty, maturity or moral character.”
The admissions department requested that the students fully disclose their contributions to the group, Vox reported. The students were also reportedly banned from attending an April event for incoming freshmen while their status was under review and the official withdrawal came soon afterwards.
Harvard Law School’s own professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz criticized the move, the university was wrong to rescind the admissions the students.
“Punishing students academically for their political views or their personal values is a serious mistake,” Dershowitz, told the Boston Globe. “These actions are not consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment.”
“Judging other people’s humor, even in the worst taste, just strikes me as somewhat dangerous,” he said.
Other legal experts say the students do not have First Amendment recourse.
“The Constitution really doesn’t apply here,” Susan Bloch, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center told NBC News. “The Constitution limits how much government can suppress speech, not a private university.”
Amy Adler, a professor at New York University School of Law, told NBC that Harvard was clear in their policy. “This seems to be a case where students exercised bad judgment and arguably Harvard may have rescinded their admission not on the content but on the students’ poor judgment,” she said. “Very little you say online is private.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.