Harvard University violated one of the most basic tenets of freedom of speech when it revoked the admission of 10 students for their offensive Facebook posts: speech should not be punished by a campus just because it is offensive, even deeply offensive.
In early June, it was widely reported that the university rescinded the acceptances of 10 students who had been accepted for the Class of 2021 because they had traded messages that were in very poor taste. But the fact that they had not yet enrolled should not matter; they wrongly suffered serious consequences entirely because administrators didn’t like their speech.
According to the Harvard Crimson, the campus paper which broke the story, the students traded messages in a Facebook group they formed after being admitted to Harvard in December 2016. At one point, they apparently titled it, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” According to the Crimson, some posts mocked sexual assault, the Holocaust and the deaths of children, with one calling the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.” Some of the postings joked that abusing children was sexually arousing. There is no question that their speech was in poor taste and very offensive.
To be clear, this is not a question of whether Harvard violated the First Amendment. The Constitution in its protection of rights applies only to government institutions and Harvard is a private university. But all educational institutions, public or private, should be committed to protecting freedom of speech of students, staff and faculty.
A basic principle of freedom of speech is that expression cannot be punished on the grounds that it is offensive, even if it is racist or sexist or homophobic. Many Supreme Court decisions have affirmed this over the years. More than 300 colleges and universities adopted hate speech codes and every court to consider them, whether for public universities like University of Michigan or private universities like…