Statement on the Encampment and Disruptive Protests on Kresge Oval

Statement on the Encampment and Disruptive Protests on Kresge Oval

May 8, 2024

MFSA has been paying close attention to the encampment that pro-Palestinian protesters set up on the Kresge Oval more than two weeks ago, including for several hours this past Monday, when protesters tore down fencing that the university had put around the camp, allowing demonstrators to re-enter. This dangerous act, one with no valid claim to free speech protection, occurred a few hours after participants in the encampment had overwhelmingly complied with MIT’s order to evacuate the encampment by 2:30 p.m. or face significant sanctions. Following Monday’s disorder, MIT initiated sanctions against dozens of protesters. 

These events, significantly driven, it seems, by non-MIT individuals, further crystallize what was already clear: The encampment is unsustainable, and it must end. 

MFSA are strong advocates for the right of free speech, and it should be noted that the protesters’ speech is protected by MIT’s strong promises of free expression, even if it is considered deeply offensive or hateful to other members of the community. If MIT were to sanction participants based on the content or viewpoint of their expression, it would be violating their right to free speech. MIT must not make this error. Speech that crosses into unprotected categories such as harassment, threats, or incitements to violence should, of course, be promptly and thoroughly investigated and dealt with.

While we support the protesters’ right to express their views, we also believe that strong free speech protections must coexist with reasonable regulations on the time, place, and manner of expression on campus, and we recognize MIT’s right to set such regulations on the use of its campus spaces. This includes the right to prohibit encampments on the outdoor areas of MIT’s campus. In fact, a de facto prohibition on overnight encampments appears to already exist in MIT’s regulations; the Institute’s Student Organization Handbook states that “[n]o events are allowed to take place after 1 am, and all events must end by the stated closing time on the event registration.” 

Universities can restrict encampments on the basis of several content-neutral factors, and doing so properly does not violate community members’ free speech rights. These factors can include the need to ensure that encampments do not impede movement through campus (as has happened at other campuses), create fire or other safety hazards, or cause excessive noise that hinders academic, administrative, or residential operations. The strain encampments can put on university resources is another factor. At MIT, police have been stationed near the encampment around the clock. As Monday’s events exemplify, the resources required to ensure its safety are likely only to increase going forward. 

There is another concern here, and that’s for basic fairness. For more than two weeks now, the encampment – set up without permit and in violation of MIT regulations – has monopolized a space designated for use by the entire MIT community, restricting others’ right to expression in the process. MIT makes numerous outdoor spaces available for demonstration and protest, including the Kresge Oval. Organizations have every right to reserve and utilize those spaces for their activity. But there is no general free speech right for a group to unilaterally claim a space meant for use by the community at large for its indefinite, exclusive use.

We recognize that President Kornbluth has a daunting task in front of her in bringing this matter to a close. We agree with her assessment of the situation, though, and that such violations of MIT policy must not be without consequence. MFSA has offered its support to President Kornbluth privately, and we do so here publicly.