October 27, 2023
The MIT Free Speech Alliance supports the universal principles of free speech and academic freedom without normally commenting on their application to specific incidents. The Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel and subsequent military actions in Gaza have reverberated at MIT and led to passionate expressions on campus across the range of viewpoints on this issue. Following a recent rally at MIT featuring members of the MIT community at which attendees reportedly chanted their support for an Intifada, many of our members and volunteer leaders have asked that we explain our position. To that end, we issue the following:
The protection of free speech is most vital when the speech is extremely unpopular, highly controversial, distasteful, or even viewed as dangerous. Under governing Supreme Court precedents, decided decades ago, the vast majority of what we would describe as “hate speech” is fully protected under the First Amendment. Of relevance to the current matter, the Supreme Court has set exacting definitions for when conduct crosses the line into actionable harassment, incitements to violence, and criminal threats. We do not discount the hurt, outrage, and even fear caused by these recent remarks. However, the thresholds at which this speech would lose its protection do not appear to have been met by these events on campus, and MIT would violate the speakers’ rights by sanctioning them. It must not do so.
MIT is a private institution, and thus not bound by the First Amendment. MIT’s promises make clear, however, that members of its community should expect free expression rights on par with those enjoyed by their peers at public institutions. MIT’s Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom, adopted by the faculty in 2022, states, “With a tradition of celebrating provocative thinking, controversial views, and nonconformity, MIT unequivocally endorses the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom.” The statement also makes clear that the First Amendment strongly informs the framework of free expression rights at MIT, noting that the Institute does not protect “direct threats, harassment … or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment.” MIT President Sally Kornbluth has repeatedly endorsed this new statement, and recently announced next steps in her plan to more fully embed the statement’s wisdom throughout the Institute. These are positive and commendable developments, and we hope they continue unabated.
If the First Amendment protected only pleasantries, it would be meaningless and wholly unnecessary. In addition, it is useful to allow those whose views we might find loathsome to speak freely, so that we may know where they stand. Denying an outlet for the expression of such views does not make such views go away; it only makes it likelier that they will manifest in more dangerous, even violent forms.
This is the genius of the First Amendment and why it ultimately increases, rather than decreases, the safety of our community.
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