Vail Daily column: Free speech, offensive content clash at Harvard | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Free speech, offensive content clash at Harvard

No shirt, no shoes, no service.

That, at least in part, was the shot across the bow delivered recently by the venerable Crimson.

If you haven’t kept up lately, or if you’ve been too distracted by the high capitol drama of Comey, Kushner, Sessions, Flynn and Trump, et. al., then what you might have missed revolved around a Facebook messaging group that was at one point titled “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.”

Say what?

“There is something to commend the saying “dance as if no one’s watching.” But in today’s all-too-transparent and all-too-instant world, if you’re going to dance naked, then pull down the blinds. That is, unless you want your booty broadcast from coast to coast in an unprotected blink.”

It began when 100 or so members of Harvard College’s incoming freshman class connected with one another through the university’s official “Class of 2021” Facebook group. As peeps — especially young ones — are wont to do these days, they created a virtual community where they could share thoughts, posts, profundities and memes and, at an electronic remove, begin to get to know, impress or annoy one another.

Things were going swimmingly hard beside the gently flowing Charles River that cleaves off Harvard from the more quotidian, less privileged world. Until, that is, things took an ugly turn.

Kids being kids, and this age being what it is, the young men and women who had been admitted to the freshman class of Harvard being more clever by half than the rest of us, and the electronic detachment of Facebook making it all too instant, detached (at least you couldn’t get punched in the nose by mere electrons zipping back and forth) and unrestrained, some of the group’s members took things a bit too far. In a flash of post-pubescent brilliance, they decided to form an offshoot group where students could share what was really on their hormone-fueled minds. Instead of pleasant how-to-dos, and reflections on the true meaning of Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” or Kubrik’s epic “Dr. Strangelove,” the posts began to take on a more sinister mien.

From Socrates to salaciousness

Instead of musings over Kierkegaard, Sartre, Socrates, Nixon’s misdeeds or how the Crimson would fare in the annual fall football scrum against the hated Yalies, the founders of the spinoff group determined that the chat should be more provocative. Soon, the posts became libidinous, then mocking, then downright awful. Who knew that future Harvardites could be so damn nasty?

A handful of these merry malcontents began to defend sexual assault, to deny or defend the Holocaust and to disparage various ethnic and racial groups. A couple of these gems included a not-so-enlightened musing that called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “pinata time.” Another offered that abusing children was “sexually arousing.” 

One has to ask not only, “What were they thinking?!” but, too, what sort of mush was filling up their heads? Were these future leaders, these privileged few, really so warped or did they simply think that the bumpers were off and, as future Harvardites, the rules did not apply? Even so, is this where their minds would wander when the leash was off?

Then, the university’s ears perked up.

Once the grown-ups caught on, the gig was quickly up. Stunned over who the university had nearly let slip in to stain its storied halls, the worst of meme-ers were identified and at least 10 incoming students who precipitated the ugly chat received letters informing them that their offers of admission had been revoked.

Onward Crimson!

Can they do that?

According to Harvard College’s admissions policies, the university reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission if, among other things, the admitted student “engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.”

And, just in case, meme-ers needed some reminding, that admonition was conspicuously posted on the Harvard College Class of 2021 official Facebook group page.

This spring, 2,056 students out of more than 39,500 applicants were invited to join Harvard’s incoming freshman class and a whopping 84 percent accepted. For better or worse, the university’s decision to rescind the meme-ers’ acceptances not only underscores the dangers of social media but emphasizes the tension between where free speech and the prerogatives of those who are offended by it intersect. Not only do potential employers check your social media, but so too do more one-third of college admission officers who report finding much of it negative.

There is something to commend the saying “dance as if no one’s watching.” But in today’s all-too-transparent and all-too-instant world, if you’re going to dance naked, then pull down the blinds. That is, unless you want your booty broadcast from coast to coast in an unprotected blink.

There has been some debate among Harvard alums and others centering on whether the university went too far.

Should Harvard teach its students not to nudge at the envelope? Should the university judge when humor — even sick humor — in “private” conversations goes too far? Should the venerable Crimson impose bright lines of “civil” communication that one dares not cross? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

What is certain is this; as a private institution, Harvard sets the rule. No shirt, no shoes, no service.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices of counsel in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business, commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address at Robbins@SLBLaw.com.