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Three years ago, Harvard University rescinded offers of admission to 10 students who participated in a highly offensive Facebook group called "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens." The group included jokes about abusing children and the Holocaust and insulting remarks about members of various racial and ethnic groups. Last year, Harvard rescinded an offer to Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., shootings who is pro-gun and pro-Trump. He lost his spot at the university over racist writings when he was 16 -- comments he said no longer reflected his views.

The incidents at Harvard attracted considerable attention and debate, but much of the discussion ignored a simple fact: Harvard is not the only institution to rescind offers of admission.

It turns out that these actions are rare but not unheard-of, and they are more common at private than at public institutions. Four percent of admissions directors at independent colleges said their institutions had rejected students or revoked acceptances at least four times in the last two years, according to an Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions deans in 2017. And at 14 percent of private colleges, that has happened at least once.

Number of Times in Last Two Years Decisions Have been Revoked or Applications Denied Over Social Media Posts, 2017

Number of Times Public Private
Once 1% 7%
Two or three times 2% 3%
Four or more times 1% 4%

From 2017 Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors

The issues extend beyond revoked admissions offers. The survey also found that only a minority of colleges have admissions officers routinely check on social media accounts of applicants, but here again the share was larger among private institutions (13 percent) than public institutions (2 percent).

Asked if colleges should check the social media accounts of applicants, only a minority agreed, but on this question the responses were close among public (15 percent) and private (14 percent). Larger shares of admissions leaders say that, even if the institutions don't check regularly, if they learn about bigotry on social media from applicants, they should factor that in to admissions decisions. At public institutions, 27 percent of admissions directors agreed that such consideration was appropriate, while 54 percent of private admissions directors said so.

This year, too, the issue is coming up -- and so are the free speech concerns.

“In America you are allowed to be racist as long as you don’t act on it,” tweeted Sean Glaze, who was set to attend Xavier University this fall as a freshman on the cross-country and track and field teams. Glaze also suggested that Ku Klux Klan rallies were less violent than the protests against police brutality, according to screenshots of his tweets published by WKRC, a local news station. Xavier, in Cincinnati, announced this month that it had revoked Glaze’s admission offer and that the “offensive, racially charged” posts do not reflect the university’s values.

Marquette University also rescinded an admission offer of an incoming lacrosse athlete after screenshots of her “offensive” post on Snapchat, a private messaging app, were circulated on Twitter. In her post, the incoming student compared and justified police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes with activists’ kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Southern Methodist University's law school revoked an admissions offer this year. In a statement on Twitter, the law school said, "SMU has revoked its offer … based on the student's racially offensive behavior recorded on social media that contradicts the university's core values -- specifically, its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Racism has no place on a campus that embraces respect for all SMU students, faculty and staff and equips its students to make a difference in the world."

Xavier, Marquette and SMU are private universities, of course, like Harvard.

But this year public colleges are also considering -- and in some cases revoking -- admissions offers. In announcing their decisions, the institutions do not mention the First Amendment.

The University of Florida posted this note to Twitter: "A prospective student who posted racist comments in social media will not be joining the University of Florida community this fall." Earlier the university had posted this: "We have recently been made aware of posts shared online during the past several days alleging that UF students or prospective students made racist and threatening comments on social media. We find the posts to be disturbing, offensive and deeply troubling and we are investigating these situations, gathering facts and determining the next course of action. We strongly reaffirm our commitment to a diverse campus community where people from all races, origins and religions are valued equally, welcomed and treated with love, not hate."

The College of Charleston posted on Facebook this month, "On Monday, we became aware of a racist social media post linked to an individual who had previously been accepted for the fall 2020 semester. Following an investigation, the college’s admissions office made the decision on Tuesday to rescind the admission of this individual … The college holds close our institution's values related to respect, diversity, equity and inclusion. We condemn racism and bigotry in any form and will not tolerate such behavior by any member of our community."

A statement from Thomas Katsouleas, president of the University of Connecticut, acknowledged that the university has received "numerous complaints" about the social media posts of "some incoming students," and said that "a number of posts we are aware of appear racist in nature, which is abhorrent to us, and the university has proceeded with the process of investigating them."

He continued, "This process includes an invitation to speak directly with the individuals responsible. Until that process is complete, the university will not allow these individuals to enroll. To be clear, the university has the ability to rescind admission and will do so if necessary to uphold our expectations of each other and the values of our community."

Some leaders of public universities do not agree.

Clifton M. Smart III, president of Missouri State University, wrote to his campus this month about complaints he received about incoming freshmen.

"One student posted a disturbing video to My Story on Snapchat. A person in the My Story group re-posted it on Twitter. Perhaps the intent of the video can be debated. Its impact cannot. Another student used an offensive racial slur while engaging in a social media exchange with a black student from her high school," he wrote.

"After seeing these social media posts and viewing the video, I, too, was horrified. My first impulse was to rescind the offer of admission to these students. But then I was reminded of a couple of things," he wrote. "Missouri State University is a public university with a public affairs mission. As a public university we are legally required to uphold the principles of free speech embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The video -- as hurtful, insensitive and offensive as it is -- is protected by the First Amendment, as was the language in the social media posts. I will admit that it was tempting to ignore the First Amendment in this case. Doing so would violate our legal obligations but, more importantly, it would effectively prevent the university from accomplishing its mission."

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said that "while not a NACAC policy, we recognize that admission offices both public and private have a fundamental right to implement admission practices that reflect their institutional philosophy, including assessments of students’ academic qualifications and personal attributes."

He continued, "Since institutions broadly attribute value to qualities like honesty, integrity, fairness, and equity in all of their operations, however imperfectly implemented, their ability to put those values into action through the admission process has been recognized as encompassing not just decisions about admissibility upon application, but also decisions about whether initial acceptances can be rescinded if new information about applicants are brought to light."

Hawkins added that NACAC's values include “fairness and equity,” “civility,” and “social responsibility,” and said, “As an overarching framework, these values stand in stark contrast to racism. As a reflection of the college admission professional community, rescinding offers of admission based on racist behavior is a tangible way of putting these values into practice.”

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that AACRAO has not taken a specific position on revoking admissions offers. But he said, "I will note that one of our core competencies for members of our professions identifies a commitment to diversity and inclusion that includes 'Admissions, registrar, and enrollment management professionals value and foster an environment that ensures respect, support and safety for all members of their campus.'"

But Zach Greenberg, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that the First Amendment protects the rights of public university students -- even when they say racist, offensive things. And it also protects many at private colleges, because those colleges pledge to follow the First Amendment. And accepted applicants, Greenberg said, gain rights when they pay a deposit to enroll.

Greenberg said FIRE is hearing about more colleges that are revoking admissions offers because of students' social media posts. "Generally, hateful speech is protected by the First Amendment," he said.

FIRE is writing to a number of colleges about this issue now. "We're encouraging" colleges to comply with the First Amendment, he said. He declined to reveal special plans for colleges that do not comply, but in the past, FIRE has sued them.

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