Time, Place and Manner Guidelines, Free Expression, and Disruptive Activity at MIT

Time, Place and Manner Guidelines, Free Expression, and Disruptive Activity at MIT

November 15, 2023

As is evidenced by the multiple communications the MIT administration has sent the community, including Vice Chancellor Suzy Nelson’s message on November 8 and President Sally Kornbluth’s messages on November 9 and November 14, there has been substantial protest and counterprotest activity at MIT in recent days. This activity has been documented both in the campus and national press as well as on social media. MFSA encourages everyone to read the most recent message from President Kornbluth and her accompanying FAQ, which gives new information on how recent protests and disruptions unfolded. MFSA offers these interim comments as the situation continues to develop.

First, universities can place appropriate time, place, and manner restrictions on campus protests and demonstrations to ensure the right to free expression is meaningfully preserved while also fulfilling the institution’s mandate to maintain operations and protecting community members’ physical safety. MIT’s guidelines were violated in the course of the daylong demonstration blocking passage through Lobby 7 and MIT’s Infinite Corridor and using amplified sound. Some interim sanctions have been levied and more may be coming, and we are watching the Institute’s response. Universities must make clear that the right to free expression does not confer the right to disrupt classroom, research, and administrative operations, and that refusal to abide by reasonable time, place, and manner guidelines can bring significant sanctions. MIT must be consistent and even-handed in adjudicating any such conduct, and ensure that everyone is afforded the fullest extent of their due process rights. 

Second, we appreciate that in their communications the MIT administration has consistently reiterated its support for free expression. We also note MIT’s utilization of a new ad hoc response team to quickly evaluate complaints. This will be useful for complaints about unprotected categories of expression, such as threats and harassment, as well as documenting suppression of others’ right to free expression – for instance, by tearing down posters or shouting down speakers. Some complaints, however, will be about offensive, but protected, expression. Such complaints, once they’re recognized to concern protected expression, should be quickly closed. MIT can, in closing such complaints, suggest additional ways in which the speech at issue can be countered – including with more speech. It is a core responsibility of MIT to assure the physical safety of all members of the MIT community. The duty to protect physical safety, however, does not mean a duty to protect one person's intellectual comfort at the cost of another’s right to expression, even expression we find hateful.

This will surely not be MFSA’s final statement on this matter, as we are continuing to gather information and the situation continues to develop. We welcome community members’ insights, which can be emailed to us at info@mitfreespeech.org. We additionally refer community members to our statement of October 27.  

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