The end of youthful indiscretion


The blowback on college campuses around student protests over the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, and the ensuing assault on Gaza in search of Hamas, is shining a light on the consequences of speech.

In a high-profile example, 34 student groups at Harvard released a statement on Oct. 8, blaming Israel for creating the conditions that led to the surprise Hamas attack the day before on a Jewish neighborhood that resulted in at least 1,200 Israeli deaths and as many as 240 hostages taken.

“Today’s events did not occur in a vacuum,” read the statement by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee. “For the last two decades, millions of Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to live in an open-air prison. Israeli officials promise to ‘open the gates of hell,’ and the massacres in Gaza have already commenced. In the coming days, Palestinians will be forced to bear the full brunt of Israel’s violence. The apartheid regime is the only one to blame.”

The statement prompted outrage from Jewish organizations, supporters of Israel, university officials, Harvard alumni and students who criticized the statement as antisemitic and misinformed.

But it didn’t stop there. Efforts were made to identify the signatories to the letter, and those identified were doxed on social media — some even had their names and pictures displayed on a vehicle cruising around Harvard Square, labeling them “Harvard’s leading antisemites.” Top law firms rescinded job offers to students who were part of the group, and other businesses declared they wouldn’t hire anyone identified with the letter or pro-Palestinian protests.

Setting aside free speech versus hate speech arguments, and the lack of morality and empathy cited by critics, a sobering lesson is emerging that young people have been loath to learn.

Being young does not get you a pass anymore. And being free and public with your views and images on social media and in other arenas have consequences — as Harvard students learned, forever branded by this position and moment in time. Youthful indiscretions are a thing of the past.

Brandeis University’s recent decision to ban a Pro-Palestinian student group from operating on the campus is another example.

It might be fun to dash off quick takes in 140 characters or less on X or to make funny, politically biting videos on TikTok, or to share musings on Instagram, or to send indiscrete text messages while using cute shorthand. But the more complicated that issues and debates get, the more thought needs to go into what is communicated. A good place to start is acknowledging that there’s more than one side, one perspective, or one solution to any issue.

I bet some of those students wish they had taken more time and put more thought into drafting those statements. Some have said they didn’t think their statement would go viral. But words have consequences. And our young people are finding out just how dire they can be.

Another example comes from college sports. Athletes about to be drafted, and make millions of dollars, have been blindsided by. tweets they dashed off when they were in high school.

Maybe someone takes racy photos in college or posts drunk or party pics, or makes racists or homophobic comments — it can all come back to haunt them. The point is this isn’t 1975 where things young people said or did were more easily generalized or overlooked.

I wished the grown-ups running companies had reacted differently in the wake of the student statements — however upsetting they found them. It could have been more of a teachable moment, instead of being met with anger and rebuke. But I get it. More is expected of these students, especially at elite private universities, who are being groomed as leaders of the future. They are held to a higher standard.

Free speech is a constitutional right, but young folks, in particular, need to remember the First Amendment applies to government censorship and intrusion. The private sector is another thing altogether, and CEOs and other private citizens have great latitude in what they will or won’t tolerate — and to a large extent, it’s their prerogative.

I know from experience that students nowadays identify with all kinds of things, as they try to find themselves and develop independent identity — sometimes just to demonstrate that they are open-minded. And that can lead to misinformed judgments and intemperate opinions or ideas being shared.

Nonetheless, young people need to be more mindful of what they do, what they say, and what they share. Presentation is king. They also need to care more than they do about their personal privacy, although when it comes to social media it might already be too late. Cameras are everywhere and texts and social media posts, even when deleted, are still forever. Our young people need to consider their actions more seriously because they are going to be held accountable — fair, or not.

It is scary to think something you write, say, or share when you’re 17, 18 or 19 could brand you (and your potential) with a scarlet letter. But that’s where we are. No matter one’s age, there are lessons here for all of us.