Skip To Content

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Back to Opinion

‘Bad Memes’ Provoke Controversy at Harvard

Harvard rescinded acceptance offers for least 10 incoming freshman after the students shared sexually explicit and racist images over private Facebook group chats, images that made fun of sexual assault, child death and the Holocaust. The incident has left students, faculty and figures on both sides of the political spectrum divided.

Erica Goldberg, Assistant Professor at Ohio Northern Law School, “On Harvard and Humor”

“The idea that some topics are above humor is misguided. Humor is inherently subversive. By ferreting out the members of this private chat group, requiring that they present to Harvard every meme sent over the chat, and revoking their acceptances, Harvard has proven that there is an oppressive force to transgress.”

Former Harvard professor and self-proclaimed “free speech enthusiast” Erica Goldberg, condemned Harvard’s decision to rescind acceptance offers in her blog, In a Crowded Theater. Goldberg argues that Harvard, as an educational trendsetter, should not set a precedent in which it teaches it’s students to “fear jokes.” Goldberg also argues that humor can ease tensions, so taking genocide seriously yet enjoying a Holocaust joke in the right setting are not mutually exclusive.

Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School professor emeritus, “Dershowitz Slams Harvard For Dumping Students Over Racist Memes”

“Punishing students academically for their political views or their personal values is a serious mistake. These actions are not consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment.”

The famous defense lawyer condemned Harvard’s decision in an interview with the Boston Globe. Although Dershowitz had not seen the images, he argued that judging a person’s humor, regardless of its manner, is dangerous because censoring satire is contrary to the spirit of free speech.

Nestor Ramos, Boston Globe, “At Harvard, A Stiff Price to Pay For Some Very Bad Jokes

“Take it from an expert: ‘Among the last connections to be fully established are the links between the prefrontal cortex, seat of judgment and problem-solving, and the emotional centers in the limbic system, especially the amygdala. These links are critical for emotional learning and high-level self-regulation.”’

Quoting Harvard’s own medical research school in Longwood, Nestor Ramos argues that, while Harvard is well within its right to show those 10 students the door, readers should consider what those consequences look like for the students. Neither condemning nor condoning the school’s decision, Ramos quotes experts in the field of psychology who argue that a 18 year-old person’s brain is not fully developed in the areas of judgement and problem-solving. College, he continues, should be a place to learn and grow from one’s mistakes.

Brett Erlich, The Young Turks, “Harvard Rescinds Acceptance Of Students Caught Using Racist Memes”

“[Harvard can say] there is a line in the you can’t cross when it comes to social media when you, are A. This overtly racist and terrible and B. Do it in a format that reveals how stupid you are that it’s one [where] you can get caught.”

The Young Turks Host and social satirist Brett Erlich stood by Harvard in his discussion with co-host during the June 5 episode of the popular, left-wing talk show. Erlich argues that, since Harvard did not disclose the names of the rejected students, those who have been accepted into other Ivy league colleges will simply go to their second pick school. Furthermore, this allows Harvard to draw a line in the sand when it comes to “dirty jokes.”


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.