On Harvard and Humor

According to the Harvard Crimson, Harvard has revoked the acceptances of at least ten students admitted to the Class of 2021.  These prospective students formed a private Facebook group chat to exchange offensive memes.  They mocked child abuse, made racist jokes, and endeavored to deride all of the stances that we, academics and students, promote and hold hear.  These students behaved immaturely and offensively.  What Harvard did in response was much worse.


Have you ever played Cards Against Humanity?  It’s an unabashedly irreverent game whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible.  The game uses cards to create inappropriate associations, on topics we are generally not socially permitted to mock – such as AIDS, the Holocaust, and dead babies.  Even many good liberals love the game, precisely because the humor is so wrong, so contrary to our values.  There is something appealing about the freedom to be irreverent and dark.

A major appeal of irreverence is its assertion of independence over strong social norms.  Strong, prevailing social norms can feel oppressive at times, even if they are good norms, and the rebellion of breaking social taboos demonstrates that we can still think for ourselves.  Joking also eases tension around difficult topics, issues that have become polarized, or events that our culture depicts only in black and white.  I take the Holocaust extremely seriously, and feel great anger at how the world watched the Jews of Europe get exterminated.  But I can enjoy a Holocaust joke in the right setting.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

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.

I love Harvard.  I taught Legal Research and Writing at the Law School for three wonderful years.  Harvard is brimming with promise and significance.  The brightest minds congregate to discuss our country’s deepest, most complex problems.  How Harvard approaches education sets trends for the rest of the country.  I hope Harvard realizes the error of its ways before it alters our understanding of the role of the university.  Harvard should not teach its students to be afraid to joke in private, among people willing to joke back.  Harvard should not teach students to turn on each other for speech.  Students should not feel compelled to speak to a newspaper only under condition of anonymity, for fear of being punished for mere association.  Harvard should not teach its students that it is acceptable for a university to ask students to account for every message and picture they send in a private chat group.  These are not the tactics nor values of our country’s premier place of learning.

Please reconsider this decision, Harvard.  You are a world class institution, but you are not infallible.  Giving this situation due consideration, how can you classify this as anything other than a dreadful mistake?  I formerly worked for two years at a nonpartisan organization that handles free speech and due process issues at colleges and universities.  I have seen many instances of public universities clearly violating constitutional rights, and private universities disregarding important academic norms involving free and open discourse.  This still strikes me as shocking and shameful.

Humor is not a threat.  I highly doubt these prospective students find abuse of children sexually arousing, as they joked.  This was an absurd way for incoming freshmen to prove to themselves that they can still be ridiculous and inappropriate, even if Harvard is a serious place.  These memes were exchanged in a private group that was in no way affiliated with Harvard.  These students may not go to Harvard, but they have unfortunately been taught a valuable lesson.

41 thoughts on “On Harvard and Humor”

  1. After seeing your blog listed in the NYT article decided to look into your blog. Actions have consequences. Profound impact occurs when people think things said and done in private don’t have consequences. You cannot espouse free speech over hard realities, especially among an age group that are not yet aware of this hard fact of life. That is silo thinking and shortsighted.


    1. Hello Stephanie. Thanks for checking out the full blog. I understand your position, and I agree that things said in private do have consequences. Where I disagree is that I do not think these things should have consequences – to preserve our free speech culture – and Harvard’s severe punishment leads the charge in basically saying private humor is unacceptable. Harvard, in my view, is teaching students the wrong lesson about free speech (which I consider a value that must often supersede hard realities, as the courts have shown in the First Amendment context), and that is also shortsighted. Thanks for your comment, regardless.


      1. a child hanging, then a joke about it; sexual assault made funny?, arousal at child abuse, the holocaust questioned – these are atrocities that children are making fun of regardless of their nearness to college admission and it is wrong. harvard did not tell these people that they could never go to the elite school, but i believe harvard did the right thing by rescinding the admission privilege. america does not need the kind of person who would say such ugly things about humanity. we are all only that – human – and the best anyone can do is lift that level, and kindness is the way to do that, not hate. sometimes the kindest thing someone can do is just turn and walk away, but hate talk brings everyone down. free speech? hah! do you really think the founding brothers had this sort of thing in mind? i think it’s time youngsters who think they’re so hip and cool and all that, need to know the actions they take have consequences. it’s harvard’s prerogative to accept only those who show they will be a plus to our society. i applaud the school’s decision.


    2. At first pass I was very upset with your position for so many reasons I won’t list them here. I looked for and found your article surrounding President Trumps campaign statements as they might relate to free speech and thought it was well written and unbiased. For that reason, I have softened my first impression of your persona……however, words shape our realities which you clearly understand. 1. Nothing on the internet is “private” 2. Humor that leverages dying children and other reprehensible acts is not humor by any civilized or thoughtful persons standards. 3. Harvard as a private institution has the liberty of kicking any member out 4. Freedom of speech and negative consequences of it aren’t mutually exclusive events….. two entirely separate talking points. I couldn’t help but wonder where are the students who have a backbone? Who have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to bad behavior (their own as well as others) and say “this is wrong and I won’t be party to it any longer.” Where are those children and the households that produce them?


  2. Playing a hands of Cards Against Humanity is very different from sharing memes in a private Facebook group. For one, CAH is explicitly understood as a game, and the perceived cover or anonymity provided by social media offers no explicit or implicit privacy protection.

    Plus, by your own acknowledgment, “these students behaved immaturely and offensively.” Harvard’s admissions policies allow them to revoke the admission of any student who “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.” Besides, “free speech” does not mean “speech without consequence.”


  3. The PC police are here to stay and it is liberals such as yourself that created the the climate of PC group think and public shaming of those that don’t conform, mostly promulgated in our higher educational systems and media outlets, of what is allowable and what is out of bounds. Reap what you sow. It will only get more restrictive and people will forever be afraid to say what they feel or make innapropriate jokes because of this climate. Try espousing conservative values on campus and see how that works for you. You’ll be branded a bigot and shutdown. It is a big deal. But if it conforms to your ideals, it’s OK, right?
    Last week you argued that courts can divine intent not found in the actual language of an executive order because the President’s campaign speeches can be used to construe his “true intent”. Maybe you should stop rationalizing based on your emotional moral compass and get back on solid ground and use facts and precedence to decide law. The other way is frought with more loss of freedom to the PC police and more mind control by liberal big brother under the guise of their superior moral ethos.


    1. Hey Bran, I would like to engage with your points civilly, as is my project. I actually consider myself a moderate, and my previous blog was heavily questioning whether we should be permitted to consider campaign statements. Another previous blog mentioned how bad that would be for free speech values. I think your anger may be causing you to miss some nuances here and overlook the legal basis on which I make my points. That sort of anger and casting all liberals with a broad brush also adds to polarization.
      Thanks for your thoughts; I agree what Harvard is doing is making people more angry and resentful, perhaps rightfully so.


      1. Sorry, my tone was overly negative. I apologize.
        I think we should return to the days where all speech was respected and liberals were at the vanguard of this core right when they were challenging the orthodoxy at many of the major institutions of our society starting back in the sixties. Now many of those same people are running the media and educational institutions and find it acceptable to ignore this core value because it suits their world view.
        You seem to have agreed with the courts that they can take campaign speech and divine language and intent not actually in the order. Did I misunderstand you? To me, that ruling was wrong and motivated by political convenience and sets awful precedence. Conservatives reluctantly went along with the courts ruling that federal executive authority was the final arbiter in all matters regarding border security, even though it was clear that the previous Administration didn’t intend to fully enforce existing law, much to the chagrin of some of the over run border states. Now suddenly courts can overrule executive authority on border security by deciding that basically they deem this President a racist? They handpicked only the statements that support their ruling and ignored many that contradict it. Anyone can see the hypocrisy in this ruling if they are being fair. And see the inherent flaw in such a ruling because of the dangerous precedent it sets.


  4. There is a body of law on yearbooks in high school regarding limiting student speech. Academics feel they need to restrict speech to properly function. Harvard will argue they spoke with the Imprimatur of the University. I support free speech and private speech that is civil is a right. Thus, people will stay quiet and vote for Trump in the voting booth. Is that what liberals want, a cultural war where people are excluded for harmless viewpoints and upon exclusion turn to extreme private speech? Can Harvard really afford a Maoist counter culture revolution without politically isolating itself. What will the Harvard Law faculty say when their students turn out as conservative legal moralists on the court as ultra Puritans in the opposite response liberals were expecting and Lord Cromwell returns to reign over them?


    1. The NYT cited two examples of offensive jokes:
      One message “called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child ‘piñata time’” while other messages quipped that “abusing children was sexually arousing,” according to images of the chat described by the Crimson.

      I don’t see any liberal vs conservative distinction here. Why are some responders injecting that issue into this discussion?


  5. So if there was a creative way for someone to joke about grabbing a woman by the pussy this game “cards against humanity” would teach the player just how?
    Looks like, to me, you are supporting anyone who plays this game. How do we know who jokes about child sexual abuse isn’t a closet pedophile? wait did I just read you’re employed by Harvard?! Are you supporting free speech or hate speech? I can’t formulate my thoughts properly at this point I’m so mad.


    1. Hi Danielle. I support the value of being able to make jokes in private, not the speech itself. Actually, hate speech is still free speech – there is no such legal category. Harvard isn’t a public university, but if it were, this would be unconstitutional – a state actor cannot discriminate against speech on the basis of viewpoint. I think (and hope you will come to see this) that supporting one’s right to joke isn’t the same as supporting the underlying content. That is a paramount value, more important than any horrible joke.


    2. Supporting free speech means you have to support the right for others to espouse what you might deem “hate speech”. The fact that so many people are now OK with shutting down another person’s right to free speech on the grounds it is “hate speech” shows how far this basic right has been eroded.


    3. > How do we know [someone] who jokes about child sexual abuse isn’t a closet pedophile?

      How do we know that someone who *doesn’t* joke about child sexual abuse isn’t a closet pedophile?


    4. For the most part I completely support free speech. But it has to be real speech. When it’s print it has to be evaluated as to whether it is inciting violence or merely fantasy. Generally humor is about fantasy. Even pedophiles have a right to culture, humor and free speech. Incitement to commit an illegal act or planning a conspiracy to commit an illegal act is not the same as fantasy. We need to have a good grip on the difference between fantasy and reality.Without it we are all lost.


  6. I just can’t. I re-read what you wrote again. I’m a stay at home mom so you could say I have no idea what I’m talking about. But I’m going to use my free speech and say people like you are the problem. People who laugh at dark humour in the right setting are the issue. Playing a game that makes fun of people who have had their lives ruined by sexual abuse, torture, or having a ancestor who lived through the holoucaust YOU are the problem. It’s never funny whether in the “right” or wrong setting. You can cling to your “opinion” that really just represents everything that is wrong in the world but I will call it out.


  7. I understand that supporting ones right to joke doesn’t support the content but when the content is revealed and it’s morally wrong then I don’t support it and neither should anyone of a sane mind.


    1. I appreciate that, for sure. But the only way to support the right to joke is to prevent others from attaching such serious penalties to that joking. This is a complicated issue. I might feel differently if these jokes were made in a way that was associated with Harvard, but it should not be policing private humor in this way. Thanks, Danielle, for your thoughts.


      1. Harvard has the right to admit whomever it deems compatible with the university’s values.
        If the admissions office had encountered the offending students in person and heard their ‘humor’, are you suggesting that they wouldn’t be able to deny admission?
        If the Dean of Students encountered matriculated students and discovered they had a student group that celebrated and selected membership on the racial, sexual and historical offensiveness of their conversation, would s/he have reason to expel?
        A degree from Harvard confers a share of Harvard’s reputation. It’s Harvard’s right to decide whether a student or potential student deserves that share, just as their future employers will have the right to fire them for comments that harmed the reputation of their company.
        Those students have an absolute right to speak their mind…they also have a responsibility to speak in a fashion compatible with a democratic society. If they can’t be civil, then the ensuing consequences may well smart. Perhaps the hurt they feel will bring them face to face with the hurts and vulnerabilities of those they chose to mock and laugh at.
        Finally, the right to speak freely is a political right. It does not confer a blanket right to any speech, anywhere, anytime on any topic.
        Harvard has defined for those students some of the limits and responsibilities of their right to free speech.


  8. Hi Dr. Goldberg – my first reaction on reading your blog post was that of anger. Then I took a step back, thought about what your position more and figured I will reply approaching the argument from logic (I think anyway) rather than emotion. While I am all for free speech, I feel ‘anything goes’ under the garb of free speech has gone too far in this country. Anyone who thinks they have rights should also realize it comes with a lot of responsibility and that is where I feel those students went too far, even if its ‘face-bragging’ in a closed (semi-public) group. The joke is always funny when its on someone else but it won’t be so irreverently funny if the joke was the “hypothetical hanging” of a white child and lets call it ‘BBQ in the backyard time’. The insensitivity of the comments reeks of white privilege and shows inherent racism which is troubling in and of itself. It is the same rights without responsibility which lets irresponsible and deranged gun owners exploit the second amendment. I bet you the founding fathers are turning in their graves because this is not how they wanted the words to be literally interpreted while flouting the spirit of the constitution. It is the same rights without responsibility which lets someone who brags about committing sexual assault on tape go on to become president while someone who laughed at it finds his TV career over – I support neither of them btw. I am not certain how you can find it so “highly doubt (ful) these prospective students find abuse of children sexually arousing” but even as a proponent of freedom to be who we are, I am in full support of Harvard rescinding admission offers on these student to serve as an example to others that there are lines that should not be crossed.


    1. Thanks for taking a step back. I understand why anger is the dominant emotion these days, but I don’t think it helps discourse. I appreciate your perspective, but think that students need a private space to be rebellious, and that these tactics and the severity of the punishment will exacerbate the polarization we now have. I understand where you are coming from, though.


  9. Not affiliated with Harvard? It’s not sponsored by Harvard, but it’s absolutely affiliated. You should look that word up. It does not require being a subsidiary or dependent.

    Harvard has an absolute responsibility to censure this kind of behavior: a responsibility to its other admitted students who should not have to suffer the kind of denial of dignity these students would show them, and perhaps more importantly, a responsibility to the future of America and the world, whom their admitted students will one day soon play a significant role in leading. To admit these students and give them those roles as future leaders is to place the Harvard imprimatur on this trash behavior. That choice is unacceptable.

    Furthermore, you call it humorous free speech done in private, but that shows an incredibly feeble understanding of human psychology. Messaging, even messaging to oneself in private (and perhaps especially so) frames thinking.

    You should further know better regarding free speech, which is a legal concept governing our relationship to government, but it does not and should not govern our private orderings. If private entities want to reject certain types of categories of speech within their own domains, this absolutely must be respected, and even encouraged. Anything else is foolish.

    I’m a current HLS student, and frankly I’m ashamed to be affiliated with you after reading this post.


    1. I’m so very sorry to hear you feel that way. Just to be clear, I never claimed that this behavior was an unconstitutional free speech violation. I believe I said Harvard is legally permitted to do this. If you would like to engage on this topic in a civil, respectful way, please contact me directly. I feel nothing but love for HLS students and would love to chat, either over the phone or via email. Our free speech culture depends on the ability to separate private discussions (Harvard itself disclaims association with these groups) from institutions to which members belong. I hope Harvard teaches you to engage on reasonable disagreements without so much hostility and anger. It is a hallmark of our profession. All the best, Erica.


    2. As another former HLS teacher, I’m ashamed to be affiliated with this (alleged) student who posted this disrespectful and ignorant comment. Erica did not argue that what Harvard did was unconstitutional, but argued that it was inconsistent with the values that Harvard should be upholding. One can agree or disagree with that (and I disagree with Erica often), but a pedantic response about the scope of the First Amendment (not to mention telling her to look up words in the dictionary) isn’t called for.

      I’s also incorrect to say that private entities’ decisions to prohibit certain types of speech “must be respected.” That’s wrong: Harvard has a right to decide what kind of speech it wants to allow, but Erica has her own First Amendment right to criticize Harvard for doing that if she wants to; she has no legal or moral obligation to “respect” (that is, not criticize) Harvard’s choices. (It’s a different matter to say that Harvard shouldn’t be legally permitted to do this, but I don’t take Erica as arguing that at all).

      Finally, it strikes me as a bit rich for this student commenter to urge that students must be held responsible for their disrespectful private speech yet to post this disrespectful comment while being too cowardly to leave his (?) full name or other publicly identifiable information. Have the courage of your convictions.


  10. This was their first, hard-learned lesson on being a real adult. People are free to say what they like, but sometimes what you say is hateful, racist, violence-promoting, or some other kind of all-around inappropriate, and there will be consequences for it. Like not being able to go to Harvard, where they hold their students to a far higher standard than joking publicly about Mexican baby pinatas. And before you say it was private: this may have been a “dark” forum, but one should always assume, when participating in anything internet-based, along with thousands of other people, many of whom you have never met, that this is not in any way, shape, or form PRIVATE. It’s the internet. Let’s be real.

    This is why your comparison to Cards Against Humanity just doesn’t measure up. People play that game in small groups, in private homes, with others that they know intimately. I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing that game in mixed company, as I couldn’t be sure if the irreverent humor that resulted would hurt someone. There’s no way the participants in a chat group on the internet could have any idea what the impact of their off-color jokes would have on several hundred strangers. I mean, what were they thinking?

    Free speech allows a person to tell a joke about a priest, a rabbi, and a horse at a job interview, but it certainly does NOT protect that person from not getting the job because, despite being perfectly qualified, they offended people in that closed-door meeting. If one makes it known that they’re incapable of discerning what is and is not appropriate to say in an mixed crowd, there will be consequences. That really doesn’t have much to do with free speech, it has to do with terribly poor judgement. It seems that Harvard expects its student body to possess and exercise excellent judgement. Like choosing an actual PRIVATE place to “be rebellious.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am troubled that despite your notion, “There’s no way the participants in a chat group on the internet could have any idea what the impact of their off-color jokes would have on several hundred strangers,” you still seem to be advocating for regulation of the speech. Why is this sort of butterfly-effect thinking something that should even be on people’s radars? The First Amendment protects people’s speech, not people’s feelings. Were the comments distasteful? Yes. Some would also argue that the pink pussy hats at the Women’s March were distasteful. If we were to eliminate every form of speech that could conceivably offend someone, we would have no speech at all. As Cardozo once noted, “The timorous may stay at home.” Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483, 166 N.E. 173, 174 (1929).


    2. ^^^^This. The Harvard standard of decorum for its provisionally admitted freshmen includes the right to revoke admission “…if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character”.

      Why people are so intent on promoting the notion that hate speech which crudely kicks down at ethnic, gender or racial minorities or promotes violence is “free speech”. Or the notion that deliberately performance art provocateurs into “liberal” college campuses, or at opposing rallies, is an equally noble endeavor. At what point and in what contexts can this kind “speech” actually provoke physical violence and riot?

      Yes, the precious special snowflakes of the 0.01% will and should have learned their first hard lesson in life, that you can’t hide some hateful expression by claiming is it “just a joke”.

      Joke’s on you, kiddies. You can’t fool the admissions office with your essays about your paid service program experience last summer in Botswana conflicting with your posting some tasteless meme bashing a Mexican.

      p.s. I am a director of a charity founded and managed by fans of the “jamband” Phish, and as part of our support for the community, we maintain and hosted the groups discussions going back to the mid-90s Usenet newsgroup. Unfortunately, in recent years, it’s become more of a chore to moderate our forum to eliminate memes, vulgarity and similar graffiti, spamming and trolling. Then there are outraged cries of “censorship” of free speech. We have to constantly explain that posting in a privately hosted forum is a privilege, not a right, that there are “Terms of Use” they agreed to that prohibit hate speech, that it reflects poorly on its charity sponsor and still there’s entitled grumbling.

      A lot of young adults need to understand that because you can go to 4chan or one forum where people “razz” each other with tasteless memes, gifs, videos and the like strung out as responsive comments in a forum “discussion”, this is a abysmally low standard for the “real” offline world.


      1. “…if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character”

        The beginning of maturity is not turning to violence because someone says something you find offensive or insulting. Otherwise no one can talk about anything.

        If you say I can’t make fun of progressives, I’ll say you can’t make fun of gun-owners and soon enough no one is talking about anything except the weather and sports.
        And then I insult your basketball team and you insult my baseball team, and now we’re only talking about the weather.


  11. If Harvard rejects 100 black applicants (in a row) for being black, that’s morally wrong. If Harvard rejects 100 black applicants (in a row) because Harvard claims they all made racist anti-Trump comments/jokes, that’s OK?

    Are hate-speech laws ever used against anyone who’s not a white male?


  12. “These memes were exchanged in a private group that was in no way affiliated with Harvard.”

    Wasn’t that the argument under the Texas license plate case–the license plates weren’t affiliated with the government–and the court ruled that any- and every-thing could be affiliated with the government?


  13. Thanks for making your views on this known! I hate the mob mentality that arises so predictably.

    It’s amusing that you even need to say that you highly doubt the kids really are abusers and monsters. It should be obvious to everyone.

    I hope everyone calling for the kids’ heads on a silver platter is ready express similar outrage at 99% of our military too, because “gallows humor” really exists and people say much worse when they’re stressed or bored.

    I wonder how did we even get the First Amendment and any semblance of free speech in the first place, given that no one seems to understand what it means?

    Everyone thinks “free speech” means “speech I agree with”.


  14. You understand that the foundation of free speech is entirely to do with the government’s relationship with citizens and nothing else, so I’m not understanding where you’re coming from or the idea of being a ‘free speech advocate’ for situations that aren’t based on that. To be honest, it sounds like ‘back in my day, we could be awful to each other and no one would say anything’ excuses to keep negative attitudes alive. Freedom of speech isn’t freedom of consequences or freedom from receiving reactions to whatever you’ve said. You’re ‘free’ to make a Holocaust joke, and I’m ‘free’ to make judgements on your character and any business we might have together as a result.

    Specific to this admissions situation, there’s even less of an argument here. Private company outlines their policy for certain actions. Students aware of this, act and policy is executed. End of story. What’s there to talk about? There’s no dangerous precedent/slippery slope issue here.


    1. “You understand that the foundation of free speech is entirely to do with the government’s relationship with citizens and nothing else”

      No, it’s not–read the thirteenth amendment and Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.(1968). That’s like saying that private citizens can’t violate each other’s privacy by spying on them or can’t violate each other’s reproductive freedom by stopping them from entering a hospital to get an abortion.

      Something isn’t moral or just simply because it’s done by a private citizen instead of the government–like racial or sexual discrimination, or segregation, or slavery.

      You wouldn’t allow a private school to spank students if you thought it violated the eighth amendment when a public school did it, right?


  15. My partner is Latina, and thus in the USA my daughter is as well. I wonder how much of a free speech enthusiast you’d be if it was your daughter who was being considered for being hung during ‘piñata time’. Any bloody idea about that?


  16. The fallacy of your article is that you reply upon your standing rather than making a persuasive argument. Summarized, “I am Jewish therefore I have a special standing to address issues of Holocaust…” “I was associated with Harvard therefore…” I respect the institution and its student body, “The brightest minds congregate to discuss our country’s deepest, most complex problems. ”

    There is an anger and hatred that is leading to dark times. an Us vs them mentality. I could say this behavior encourages that. Their humor makes light of those who are most vulnerable. There is freedom of speech but part of that epic freedom involves responsibility for what is said. Just as I have a right to determine who I will associate based upon criteria I choose. Harvard has a right to create criteria for the students they want to be associated with.

    On a personal note, I am happy to have discovered your blog and I plan on making it a regular read. I apologize that I have not had proper time to wright a more thoughtful response.


  17. Every now and then news about American and English universities banning people for making jokes reach Europe. For me, who lives in a totally different culture, it is alarming to see how two countries that present themselves as part of the free and democratic West, and often as it primary members, have limitation of free speech incorporated into its academic culture. The discharge of Sir Timothy Hunt set off an alarm here on the continent.

    I get the impression that people who support the rescission of these students’ admissal are heavily led by the content of the memes, which should not be the matter of discussion at all, if free speech were a universal value.

    Many people also believe that they are able to deduce negative character traits in the students from the use of these memes. I don’t think they can. A psychiatrist wouldn’t dare to. And again, I think it should not matter. In a free society there should be serious concerns if people are disallowed from educational institutions (or any institutions for that matter) based on (presumed or real) character traits.

    I often read how (presumably) Americans claim that students should weigh what they say on Facebook, because actions lead to consequences. I agree with you that, in the case of universities, the action of joking should not lead to the consequence of having your admission revoked. In Europe that would not be possible, because it would be considered discriminatory. And I wonder whether the Americans in question would respond the same way if a university were to rescind the admissal of students, because they had claim adherence to a church, to a political party or to a feminist organisation. If people embrace the apparent right of universities to disallow students for doing things they personally dislike, that is not only a breach of free speech, it actually forces people to plead allegiance to a certain set of ideas, values and actions that might no be theirs. That comes close to what dystopic literature calls ‘thought police’.

    Harvard’s own free speech policy makes a very strong claim for free speech, not because it promotes ideas currently popular, but because a free exchange of ideas is better for society in the end. It is not to say that the exchange of internet jokes on itself helps society forward, but it is surely detrimental for a university when students no longer feel free to speak out, for the fear of being expelled. That is detrimental to campus culture, to academic freedom and in the end for free discussion.

    The final thing that wonders me in this discussion is how the private context of the conversation is played down. I think it should not play any role at all what people joke about and where, but even if that should be of any importance, these jokes were shared in a closed Facebook conversation, not projected onto the main university building.

    Not the core of the case, but interesting nevertheless, is the appreciation of dark humour. From what I read here and on other sites, dark humour is much more common and accepted here in Western Europe than it is in your country. Some people in the reactions claim that they alone can define humour, but I think that is an egocentric and dangerous point of view. I subscribe to the magazine Charlie Hebdo, as do some of my colleagues. I am a university teacher and I have never even considered not bringing it to campus, although it is full of black jokes. These fulfill many roles. They are not, as some here say, ‘mocking the holocaust’ or ‘mocking dead children’. As you say, they show where society’s sensitivities lie. They also show that the people who share them, are in fact highly moral. Scholars have detected as one of the commonest principles of humour that people start laughing, when they feel uneasy because something horrible is presented as if it were completely trivial. In order to get the joke, people have to recognise this double bind or ‘second dégré’, as it is called in French

    What frightens me is how many (again presumably) Americans are more or less calling out for severe punishment for these young people, because they should have done something morally outrageous. Free speech, academic freedom, artistic freedom, the multi-layeredness of jokes, it does not seem to te included. People have sinned and should be hanged. Living in a society that has largely abandanod religion, I find that frightening to see. It reminds me of a past in which thought was carefully controlled and ‘sinner’ was a term that actually meant something.


  18. Does this mean Harvard will change their acceptance criteria as they “missed” something? Likely not, as it has worked for them for decades; which means they should keep the criteria they have in-place and ignore other criteria. If society ever regresses to mandating cameras in people’s homes, will Harvard put that in the mix?


  19. This isn’t an abstract issue of what free speech means in an institution that can do whatever it wants. It’s a question of what that institution does under certain pressures — that most of us know about but no one here seems to think relevant.

    Namely, for better or for worse we’ve decided as a society that not only are certain things evil — like racial and ethnic prejudice — but also that our schools and our employers must stamp them out.

    What if, say, Jewish or Hispanic students feel that Harvard is — not for the first time, as we all know — a hostile environment? If they sue, I know as surely as I know my own name that Harvard’s record in handling bigoted utterances will take center stage.

    Even if it gets nowhere near a courtroom, the court of public opinion will judge Harvard. And if it sees in the blogosphere, on TV news or in the newspapers and magazines any hint of tolerated bigoted memes and the like, Harvard will lose.

    Not to mention that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has found that academe runs by the Golden Rule: Those who have the gold make the rules. And Uncle Sam is by far Harvard’s (and practically every other US school’s) biggest donor. OCR — again, for better or for worse — is not shy about writing Dear Colleague letters and independently threatening schools with loss of funding.

    Whether it’s right or wrong that students should face the loss of their acceptances for just trading nasty memes and jokes — FWIW, I basically agree with Professor Goldberg here — I’m not surprised that Harvard’s doing it. I’m surprised that Harvard only *started* doing it this year.

    And if we want Harvard and others to stop things like this, we need to address the larger context. Which ultimately means all of us, to the extent that we demand lawsuits against, public exposure of and cutoffs of Federal money to those who allow expressions we have a problem with.


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