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Harvard University revoked admission offers to at least 10 incoming students after the school discovered the individuals were posting explicit and obscene memes in a Facebook chat group that advocated sexual assault and mocked the death of children.
The potential students began sharing posts in a private chat group that splintered off from a larger one of about 100 students who contacted each other through the school's official Class of 2021 Facebook page that was meant for new students to meet each other, the Harvard Crimson first reported on Sunday.
The online group was originally meant to share memes on popular culture, and started off as “lighthearted” but then a few members began getting inappropriate, an incoming student who was a part of the larger group told the Harvard Crimson.
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The students who began posting the explicit memes started their own subsect and demanded that members of the larger group post provocative memes in order to gain admission in their chat room, Cassandra Luca, an incoming student who joined the first group but not the second, told the Harvard Crimson.
“They were like, ‘Oh, you have to send a meme to the original group to prove that you could get into the new one,’” she said. “This was a just-because-we-got-into-Harvard-doesn’t-mean-we-can’t-have-fun kind of thing,” she said.
The “dark” group called themselves “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens” at one point and mocked “sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children," according to screenshots obtained The Crimson.
“Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups,” according to the paper.
When Harvard got wind of the group, school officials pulled the acceptance offers of about 10 incoming students who were a part of the online chat group.
The Crimson reported that the school’s investigation into the matter involved university officials asking members of the group to send them every meme they posted.
“We do not comment publicly on the admissions status of individual applicants,” said University spokesperson Rachael Dane in a statement to NBC News.
“The Admissions Committee was disappointed to learn that several students in a private group chat for the Class of 2021 were sending messages that contained offensive messages and graphics,” reads a copy of the Admissions Office’s email to the revoked students obtained by The Crimson.
The official Facebook group for the Class of 2021 did give a warning to students saying the page was managed by the school’s College Admissions & Financial Aid Office and was meant to "meet your classmates, share where you're coming from, ask questions, keep in touch."
“We are not responsible for any unofficial groups, chats, or the content within. As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” the description on the Facebook page reads.
The ultra-competitive school had a record number of applications this year hitting nearly 40,000 — with only 2,056 students gaining acceptance.
Harvard has said before that a decision to rescind a student's offer is final.
Legal experts say the issue is cut-and-dry and the students do not have First Amendment recourse.
"The Constitution really doesn't apply here," said Susan Bloch, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "The Constitution limits how much government can suppress speech, not a private university," she said.
“These students have absolutely no free speech rights that were violated in this context," said Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia University Law School.
“The First Amendment’s Free Speech protections apply only to violations by public entities, and since Harvard is a private university the First Amendment does not apply,” she said. “These students have no right or entitlement to admission to Harvard, and as such it is Harvard’s prerogative to decide that it will not welcome into its community these individuals who have demonstrated a willingness to violate Harvard’s code of ethics and policies against hate speech,” she said.
Amy Adler, a professor at New York University School of Law, said Harvard appeared to have been clear in their policy and the students were on notice as to what was acceptable.
"This seems to be a case where students exercised bad judgment and arguably Harvard may have rescinded their admission not on the content but on the students' poor judgment," she said.
This is yet another case where students have to be mindful of what they post online, she said.
"Very little you say online is private," she said. "The footprint you leave online lasts a very long time so it requires you to consistently exercise judgment," she said.