American Jewish lawyer and Harvard academic Professor Alan Dershowitz has criticised his university’s decision to rescind admission offers to students for posting messages joking about the Holocaust.

Dershowitz, a well-known supporter of Israel and defender of civil liberties, said Harvard’s response had gone too far, because the messages were left in a private online chat-room and were meant as jokes.

Students due to start at Harvard formed an unofficial splinter group on Facebook and were encouraged to make politically incorrect jokes in order to gain entry. Among the subjects were the Holocaust, paedophilia and sexual assault, with several racial slurs at minorities.

The students’ actions and the university’s subsequent retraction of “at least ten” offers were reported this week in the prestigious college’s newspaper, The Crimson.

However, while Dershowitz admitted that the jokes were in “very bad taste,” he said Harvard had gone too far in rescinding the offers, which amounted to a “draconian punishment” for comments intended as private.

In an interview with The Guardian, Dershowitz said: “It sounds like Harvard is intruding too deeply into the private lives of students… It may affect them for life.”

His colleague Professor Harvey Mansfield concurred, saying: “The bounds of what is offensive have been extended and distorted. I no longer trust the bent judgment of politically-correct enforcers.”