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From Facebook, to Twitter, to Instagram, to Snapchat, people are sharing their lives online. People are no longer tethered to physical hangouts any longer. They can gather, communicate, and share their life experiences on social media.

Social media is an amazing way to engage with people, but it comes with a huge price and responsibility

Social media can be a double-edged sword. Using it haphazardly and with no regard for who is reading it can result in serious repercussions. This is what exactly happened to a select group of young people with an outsized sense of entitlement, which had been required to suffer the consequences for ugly and inappropriate behavior.

In a recent news story, at least 10 would-be Harvard students had their admission revoked because they shared offensive memes on Facebook. The memes used jokes about racial slurs, sexual assault, and child abuse, and when they were discovered by administrators, Harvard rescinded their admissions offers.

This comes at a time of heated debate about free speech so it probably should have been expected that the school’s decision would become ensnared in that discussion. It would be a mistake, though, to conflate the recent events at Harvard with any kind of attack on free speech.

Because of the widespread confusion about the meaning of Free Speech on Social Media, and how it pertains to an entity’s reaction to said Free Speech, Craig Ashton and Tim Hodson spent some time on a recent episode of All Things Legal discussing the legal import of the matter:

 “Consequences from a private institution are not equal to government censorship” Craig Ashton argued. However, shouts of “But free speech!” are often heard when a politically charged action receives public backlash.

Tim Hodson responds, “Just because you have the ability to say what you want, doesn’t meant that there are not any repercussions from it. Harvard can take any action they want and the First Amendment doesn’t apply here.”

The First Amendment protects one’s right to say or do something absent government reprisal. It doesn’t protect someone from any social consequences. Harvard, as part of the private sphere, may admit any students it chooses. It has the right to not admit students whose values do not align with the school’s, and making racist and explicit jokes on Social Media reflects the character of the students. That’s part of another First Amendment right, called free association. We have the right to choose with whom we will associate, free also of government coercion.

Although these students have a right to share their jokes on Facebook and other forms of Social Media, Harvard has a right to not be associated with those jokes or people who make them. Waving the First Amendment flag only reflects the flag-bearer’s fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between government censorship and private consequences. So instead of hiding behind the First Amendment, call Harvard’s decision what it is—negative social consequences for bad online behavior.

Think Before You Post

The best advice that Craig Ashton and Tim Hodson provide is use common sense. Just think before you post. That’s because once you put out something online, it’s hard, if not impossible, to take it back.

A potential college, or employer can see what type of online identity you may have built online, and depending what type of identity you built for yourself, what you post may have serious repercussions. While it may be tempting to want to post anything and everything you do or think, before you hit “post,” just sit for a second and think how that post could affect you. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

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