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MIT Takes Steps Toward Meaningful Free Expression

The most significant line: "We cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious"
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Anyone familiar with the campus scene today knows that many disciplines are dedicated to anything but open inquiry. The academy is full of true stories about Canceled profs and students. Not “failed” students and profs, notice, but Canceled.

Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (the famous MIT) appears to be breaking the mold by adopting free speech principles by a faculty senate vote of 98 to 52. A key passage:

At the intersection of the ideal of free expression and MIT community values lies the expectation of a collegial and respectful learning and working environment. We cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious. At the same time, MIT deeply values civility, mutual respect, and uninhibited, wide-open debate. In fostering such debate, we have a responsibility to express ourselves in ways that consider the prospect of offense and injury and the risk of discouraging others from expressing their own views. This responsibility complements, and does not conflict with, the right to free expression. Even robust disagreements shall not be liable to official censure or disciplinary action. This applies broadly. For example, when MIT leaders speak on matters of public interest, whether in their own voice or in the name of MIT, this should always be understood as being open to debate by the broader MIT community. [italics added]

Free Expression Statement adopted by the MIT faculty” at Free Speech at MIT (December 21, 2022)

Those who hold minority or unpopular views on campus are usually censured on the theory that the presentation of their views is a source of offense or even injury to others. The explicit statement that the university cannot prohibit speech on that ground implicitly recognizes that individuals on campus who cannot endure the presentation of opposing views have a problem that they need to address, if they are to continue in higher education. It is not the responsibility of the university to protect them from the debate that is the lifeblood of research and scholarship.

A commitment to free expression includes hearing and hosting speakers, including those whose views or opinions may not be shared by many members of the MIT community and may be harmful to some. This commitment includes the freedom to criticize and peacefully protest speakers to whom one may object, but it does not extend to suppressing or restricting such speakers from expressing their views. Debate and deliberation of controversial ideas are hallmarks of the Institute’s educational and research missions and are essential to the pursuit of truth, knowledge, equity, and justice.

[italics added]”Free Expression Statement adopted by the MIT faculty” at Free Speech at MIT (December 21, 2022)

“Essential” is the right word here. Research and forums dedicated to providing support for only one approved opinion are propaganda efforts and rallies, not higher education.

MIT’s statement is an adaptation of the Chicago Principles, an outcome of the University of Chicago’s Freedom of Expression Committee report in 2014. From the Chicago report: “More recently, President Hanna Holborn Gray observed that ‘education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.’” These principles have been adopted by, so far, 94 higher education institutions across the United States.

But formulating and adopting principles is only a beginning. The aggrieved student or faculty member may be only a text message away from a bureaucrat who is happy to justify her job by aggressing against a lecturer who said something deemed upsetting. What happens when looking at both sides of an argument comes into conflict with the perceived right not to be offended? That will determine whether the Chicago Principles — or any principles — matter much.

Consider, for example: “Black physicist canceled for challenging narrative of ‘homophobic’ NASA telescope.” Physicist Hakeem Oluseyi, National Society for Black Physicists President, became the target of extreme hostility when his research into the life of NASA administrator James Webb, after whom the famous space telescope is named, did not show that Webb led efforts to discriminate against gays. It was quickly made clear to him by a number of academics that his research conclusions were unacceptable — not incorrect, mind you, but unacceptable.

Washington University School of Medicine lecturer Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier “was recorded informing her students that she will ‘shut that sh** down’ if anyone tries to debate her on ‘systemic oppression.’” She is a member of a campus team called the “Understanding Systemic Racism Team” but even so, no one is allowed to debate her on the point. (December 20, 2022) Yet Washington University is one of the signatories of the Chicago Principles.

Finally, “63% of U.S. college students felt ‘intimidated’ against sharing opinion in class: survey. ‘A higher 63% reported feeling intimidated in sharing opinions different than their peers, also a record high and a jump of 13% from the 2021 survey,’ according to the results of the national survey of more than 800 college students.” (December 8, 2022) These findings are from the Buckley Program, an intellectual diversity and free speech group based at Yale University.

About MIT, free expression watchdog College Fix — from whose files the above examples are taken — notes re the MIT Statement:

It had been presented earlier this year by MIT’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression, developed after the venerable university was engulfed in controversy for canceling a guest lecture to be given by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot in 2021.

Activists had led a campaign against Abbot for his comments critical of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, but he had been slated to speak on climate change, not DEI policies.

If MIT leadership is proud of the statement’s passage, they have not said so it publicly. A roundup touting the institution’s 2022 accomplishments, published a couple days after the statement was approved, does not mention it.

Jennifer Kabbany, “MIT faculty adopt free expression statement that protects ‘offensive’ speech” at The College Fix (December 29, 2022)

An intellectual freedom statement will only make a difference at MIT if MIT continues to seek achievements that go beyond mere conformity to approved views.

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MIT Takes Steps Toward Meaningful Free Expression