Since 2009, I have been contacted numerous times by families with kids who have had college admissions and/or scholarships revoked due to inappropriate digital behavior or content. During the past couple of years, I have seen a dramatic increase in how colleges are digitally tracking prospective students, incoming students, and current students.
For years, I have known that Harvard social media monitors its students. For example, I spoke with its student newspaper in 2012 about this issue. Since this article’s publication, at least 16 states have enacted laws that ban colleges from deploying social media monitoring software and other methods to track the personal social media activity of applicants and current students. However, to circumvent these laws, some schools are creating Facebook Groups, using other digital forums they control and/or monitor, and deploying other extremely invasive technologies and tactics to see how prospective, incoming, or current students interact online.
Harvard created a Facebook Group for its incoming 2021 class and some students who were using this group allegedly set up a separate group entitled, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”. On this so called private group sexually explicit messages along with racially charged content was posted.
It appears that at least one invited group member tipped off Harvard’s Admissions Office about this issue. During its investigation into the matter, Harvard appears to have required those accused to admit their participation and then after obtaining verification of inappropriate digital behavior revoked at least ten offers of acceptance.
I have led the charge against schools and employers from being able to demand access to your personal social media content. For example, in Maryland, its against the law for colleges and universities (and employers) to demand that students verify their digital content. At least sixteen states have enacted similar laws. While Massachusetts has not yet enacted these types of student protections despite legislation being introduced, its possible if Harvard applicants who had their offers revoked lived in a state with a student social media privacy/reputation law in place they may have a valid claim.
A potential claim would depend on the language of the state law and exactly how Harvard interacted with their applicants. Even if an admitted student who had their offer revoked had a valid claim based upon the facts and the law, it may not be worth pursuing due to time, cost, and potential reputational risk.
When a public or private educational institution demands that an applicant verify their digital activity its imperative to contact someone who is well versed in these matters. Time is of the essence in this situations because schools generally demand a response within a very short period of time so applicants are not able to hire someone who can properly advise them how to deal with this potentially life changing issue.
I have counseled numerous students and their families on these issues and regularly advise clients how to minimize their digital footprint. I teach clients how to exercise their social media freedom of speech rights in a manner that will make it extremely difficult for college admissions officers to revoke their acceptance based upon immature or inappropriate digital activity. Being proactive is much easier than trying to clean up a digital cluster-f*ck.
I don’t encourage young people to post racist, sexist, etc… content online. However, during this time in their lives, its natural for them to explore the world and learn about thoughts and ideas that may not be politically correct digitally discuss them. Just because a 17-year old posts some disgusting content online doesn’t mean he or she is not redeemable. Everyone makes mistakes, especially when you are a teenager.
The bottom line is that in general young people should be educated and not punished for the rest of their lives for posting dumb sh*t online.