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Op Eds

Give Students Social Media Amnesty

By Chris J. Barker
Chris J. Barker teaches political theory at The American University in Cairo.

This fall, like any other, a majority of American high-school seniors will apply to college. A majority of them will be admitted. A majority of them will attend college in the fall of 2021. And a minority — a very, very small minority — will have their admission revoked for misbehavior on social media, ex post facto. But why?

Some cases involving criminal behavior warrant the decision to rescind. Others do not. And like super-parents, admission committees can see everything, in a digital age, and punish everyone for anything from speech to incitement, civil disobedience to criminality, structural racism to a temporary glitch in one’s character.

In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates laughably suggests that if he is guilty of corrupting the youth and bringing in new gods, the fitting punishment is public support: free food and drink while he tries to improve his soul through dialectical exercises. For the Class of 2025, the answer might be: Bar them from the quad.

This fall has the potential to be a particularly important inflection point in the admissions question. We can watch every student, all the time. But perhaps it's time to try out an alternative: a general, social media amnesty for the speech of rising students who came of age during the spring of COVID-19 and widespread protests. Selective punishment of social media is not likely to target the worst of the worst, and may be neither proportional nor non-arbitrary.

I am not repeating the overstated conclusion that racism is one of the dangerous thoughts students should be challenged to confront — that universities simply continue the conversation, wherever it leads, as Richard Rorty used to argue about democracy. I am suggesting that our focus should be on education. For the individual “soul” — or reasonable mind, if you prefer — what is best? Harvard students have discussed this question. The Crimson Editorial Board posed this question about Michelle Jones in 2017, and correctly answered: Greater access to education is best. And this is generally the right answer.

Harvard's admission requirements include maintaining honesty, maturity, and moral character. Consider this University of Florida case, which illustrates an internal tension among these principles. A student who shares her concerns about her own racism checks the honesty box, precisely when exposing deficits in her moral character and maturity. The school rescinded her admission offer.

Now, let's consider a harder case. An enormous number of young people have been marching, talking, arguing, holding signs, and posting online in support of liberal and progressive causes: prison and criminal justice reform and unjust policing. And yet — one person's brave dissenter is another's brainwashed Marxist or immature privileged lout.

And hence the idea of a general digital amnesty, which gives up on the idea that uncurated social speech makes appropriate material for admissions committees. After high-school students engaged in protests against gun violence in 2018, schools tried out a limited amnesty policy and encouraged students to speak their truth without repercussions. This approach should extend to all social media, for those on the right and the wrong side of the debate over policing and protest, except in cases of criminal charges, pending or resolved.

Schools may respond that they have to act when things are brought to their attention. This is front-running, pure and simple. It suggests that social media influencers, whoever they may be — the rich, the popular, the disaffected — determine who will be handed over to admissions committees for discipline. This type of echo chamber may be better than a smoke-filled room, but it basically relies on social media to police itself. “Nemo iudex in causa sua”?

Letting students take some risks and make some mistakes seems like a very American approach to take. So, here are some blunt words in favor of letting students work out their mistakes. In fall 2020, admissions committees will be able to use an enormous range of online speech against prospective students. Consider long and hard what you want your school to do with it. If you favor barring social media malefactors, you are either saying that these potential students harm you, damage the school's brand, or that they are uneducable. Speech may hurt other students’ feelings, or in some cases even cause harm. I want to acknowledge this reality, while arguing that exclusion is typically not the answer. In the case of branding, the claim is obviously cynical and deserves derision. As for someone's putative un-educability, why are we so sure?

If the United States wants active citizen-students and not the automatons we see produced in authoritarian countries, it will allow high schoolers to generate speech and create large social networks relatively unsurveilled. Sometimes, some of them will say, F--- the police. Others will say, All Lives Matter. For the most part, the nuclear option of exclusion is not required, because places of higher education educate.

Chris J. Barker teaches political theory at The American University in Cairo.

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