Free Speech Loses Ground as Harvard Retracts Offers to Admitted Students

tags: Harvard, free speech

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, with Emily Robertson, of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools(2017, University of Chicago Press).

Suppose you’re an incoming freshman at Harvard University, which in April reportedly rescinded admissions offers for  the fall term to 10 students who had posted racist and obscene memes over the internet. Will the controversy make you more or less likely to speak your mind when you get to campus?

I think we all know the answer. And that’s what troubles me about Harvard’s decision, which will fuel an already-tense atmosphere of censorship at colleges across the country.

Let’s get two things straight from the start. First, the memes were profoundly hateful. One associated sexual practices among Jews with the Holocaust, another linked Muslims to bestiality, a third made light of pedophilia, and a fourth used the term "piñata" in reference to suicide by Mexican-Americans.

Second, there is no constitutional issue here. The First Amendment bars the government — not private institutions — from restricting free speech. So Harvard has the legal right to retract admissions offers from the people who trafficked in these images. What’s more, Harvard, like many colleges, has a policy that acceptance may be withdrawn if the prospective student engages in, among other things, morally compromising behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it was right to rescind the offers. By rejecting the offending students, the university reinforced the idea that students shouldn’t offend one another. And that’s inimical to free exchange and expression, which Harvard claims to prize over everything else. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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