To Rebuild Trust, MIT Must Build on its Progress on Free Expression

To Rebuild Trust, MIT Must Build on its Progress on Free Expression

January 19, 2023

Barely a month following her appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, MIT President Sally Kornbluth is the only university president testifying that day who remains in her position. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned before the week was out, and Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned a month later after criticism of her testimony gave way to mounting concerns over plagiarism from her doctoral studies that made her position unsustainable. This remarkable turn of events only accentuates the stakes for President Kornbluth as she seeks to rebuild the Institute’s trust with the community.

In the hearing’s most heated segment, Rep. Elise Stefanik called on the three presidents to answer whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate their student conduct policies. The presidents, Kornbluth included, said that it would depend on the context of the statement, which, it should be noted, rarely includes explicit calls for genocide but more typically includes more generalized expressions of support for an intifada and the uttering of slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”  

Such remarks are understandably alarming to many, who view such language as endorsing calls for the violent elimination of the world’s only Jewish state and the people currently living there; indeed, some who espouse or endorse such language would like to see precisely that. And yet, the presidents’ replies were accurate. The First Amendment, which informs the policies of many private institutions, protects such expression when it does not cross the line into unprotected conduct such as harassment, threats, and immediate incitements to violence, and the individualized circumstances of each incident matter. MIT’s Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom makes clear the First Amendment’s role in helping set its boundaries, stating that “MIT does not protect direct threats, harassment, plagiarism, or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment.” 

Even so, the presidents’ lawyerly responses sparked widespread outrage, and it is not difficult to understand why. While the presidents each made appeals to the principles of free expression, it’s demonstrably true that each of the institutions represented in the hearing has lost credibility through their actions over the years. Indeed, they have censored or sanctioned speech and speakers for remarks far less objectionable than the hypothetical speech scenario posed during the hearing. 

As multiple national publications noted, it was at MIT that professor Dorian Abbot was disinvited from delivering a scientific lecture following an outcry over his criticisms of race-conscious admissions and DEI programming. Penn and Harvard, meanwhile, racked up so many failures on free speech and academic freedom that they occupy the bottom two spots out of the 248 schools in the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s College Free Speech Rankings. Our universities – especially our elite universities – have too often indulged the pernicious notion that speech which offends us can constitute violence and create physical danger. It is not surprising, then, that the presidents’ words rang hollow to many. 

Universities now face mounting pressure to impose new restrictions on campus expression. MFSA believes that doing so would be a serious mistake on MIT’s part – one that will undo much of the progress it made on free expression in 2023. 

Fortunately, MIT President Sally Kornbluth seems to agree. In her opening statement to Congress, Kornbluth stated (emphasis added): 

Those who want us to shut down protest language are, in effect, arguing for a speech code. But in practice, speech codes do not work. Problematic speech needs to be countered with other speech and with education, and we are doing that.

We agree. Imposing restrictions on what members of the MIT community can say will do nothing to allay the tensions that have taken root and build resentment that will only polarize the campus further. MFSA  appreciates the scale of the challenge MIT faces as it works to rebuild trust with the community, many members of which have been personally affected by this conflict, and for whom the ongoing tensions on campus are very difficult to weather. There are many things MIT can, and should, do to support its students, faculty, and staff through this crisis, which do not restrict expression. However it proceeds, though, it must center its support for free expression in its approach, and build on the progress it has made over the last year. What, then, can MIT do to regain the confidence of its community members while protecting their free expression rights? To start, MFSA urges the following three measures. 

First, reform or eliminate MIT’s remaining speech codes. With President Kornbluth on the record stating that speech codes do work, it’s time for MIT to examine those policies it still maintains, and act accordingly. Speech codes allow for the punishment of expression based on the subjective views of the listener as well as the personal biases of those tasked with the codes’ enforcement. They inevitably result in double standards and inconsistent enforcement, leaving the impression that certain views and opinions are afforded more protection than others. MIT should revise its speech policies so that they are governed by clear, objective standards consistent with MIT’s free expression promises.

Second, enforce necessary and permissible ‘time, place, and manner’ regulations, and do so consistently. MIT has a duty to ensure that community members’ right to expression do not seriously disrupt the academic and administrative operations of the Institute. MIT must demonstrate a willingness to enforce its regulations, and it is incumbent on members of the community to understand the potential disciplinary consequences for failure or refusal to abide by them. The Institute should also make clear that disruptions of classroom and administrative activity of the sort seen at MIT and on other campuses in recent weeks are expressly forbidden. Moreover, MIT must draw a clear line against speech that does cross into harassment or otherwise stray into legally unprotected speech.

MIT should take care to ensure that its regulations do not excessively burden the right to free expression and do its best to accommodate all campus groups wishing to exercise their right to demonstrate. This being said, MIT must work to defeat the expectation that community members will not face disciplinary consequences for serious violations of university policy that cause disruption of campus operations. Especially on issues as contentious as the current conflict, failing to do so will be seen by many in the community as evidence of a double standard, which will erode the Institute’s credibility and make achieving meaningful dialogue more difficult. President Kornbluth’s January 3 message, in which she noted concerns regarding the “timeliness, accountability, and transparency of [MIT’s] disciplinary system” and her charge to the MIT Corporation’s Risk and Audit Committee to evaluate potential “practical improvements” offers potential encouragement in this area. 

Third, adopt institutional neutrality. University responses to the Hamas terrorist attacks and subsequent conflict would have attracted significantly less controversy had institutions not already spent years offering official comment on political and social issues removed from their academic missions – often under pressure from vocal elements of the community demanding they take particular sides. By effectively censuring “wrong” views on matters open to debate and disagreement, universities allow orthodoxies to become entrenched, foster a culture of self-censorship, and empower those who would censor the speech of their ideological opponents. It’s too late to change past behaviors, but by embracing neutrality and internalizing the wisdom of statements like the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report going forward, MIT can be better positioned to lead on contentious matters when they arise in the future.

While MFSA views these steps as necessary, we do not believe they are sufficient, and that a deeper, more multifaceted effort will be required to maintain an atmosphere supportive of free expression. In the coming weeks, MFSA will provide the Institute with a broader and more detailed set of recommendations for improving the climate for free expression at MIT. We look forward to presenting our input to the community at this pivotal moment, and continuing to help guide MIT’s path forward on free expression.

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