Branded the first casualties of a nation-wide ‘college meme war,’ ten students were uninvited to join the incoming freshman class of Harvard University due to the dissemination of controversial memes. Frankly, they deserved it.
As a tech-savvy millennial and a comic combatant in this so called “college meme war,” I enjoy the relief that a witty meme can provide just as much as the next sleep-deprived college student. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania – a part of the Ivy League – I am a member of our own meme page whimsically dubbed the “Official Unofficial Penn Squirrel Catching Club.” With more than 15,000 followers – more than the entire undergraduate student body – the page serves as a place of comical respite in a demanding academic environment.
Some of the group’s favorite topics: comparing the elite of the Wharton business school to the snakes of Slytherin from the Harry Potter series and lampooning our university president, Amy Gutmann, for her ever-growing salary.
At the end of the day, these sorts of memes can be simply chalked up as light-hearted banter between students, but what happened at Harvard crossed the line between humorous commentary and hate speech.
At Harvard, what started as a typical college meme group turned ugly when a smaller splinter group formed. The group was dedicated to sharing controversial and offensive memes. Some of the memes mocked sexual assault, ethnic minorities, the Holocaust, and most disturbingly, the death of children.
One post called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”
When the university administration caught wind of the disturbing posts, they withdrew the acceptances of these students on the grounds that the university reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission if an admitted student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.”
The students’ dismissals has reignited a debate about the the nature of the Internet.
Some disagreed with the university’s actions on the grounds of privacy – that it is not the university’s right to pry into the conversions of their students on social media sites. Others such as Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern Law who has weighed in on the case, consider inflammatory memes to be as “unabashedly irreverent” as the popular card game Cards Against Humanity, “whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible.”
Outside of university guidelines, under normal circumstances, posting controversial memes such as these would simply be exercising one’s freedom of speech, but these are not normal circumstances. It’s no secret among millennials that universities have been monitoring the social media pages of prospective students – it has been happening since the beginning of social media.
These students were applying to Harvard University, one of the most prestigious and sought-after universities in the country. They were surely smart enough to know that what they were saying on social media was not private and had the potential to influence their admission.
To draw humor from topics such as the Holocaust and the death of children is unjustifiable. Even the “cleverly offensive” can still be offensive, and to say that a meme is “unabashedly irreverent” is the modern, digital version of a high-school bully saying that his antics are just jokes.
Those who attend elite universities such as Harvard are supposedly the leaders of tomorrow, and to allow students to spout such distasteful content within the confines of these digital echo-chambers is a dangerous precedent to have. Harvard made the right call.
James Meadows is an editorial intern through the University of Pennsylvania’s RealArts writing program. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jameadows95