MIT Adopts Free Speech Resolution: 'We Cannot Prohibit Speech as Offensive or Injurious.'

by | Dec 30, 2022


We recently discussed schools joining the University of Chicago free speech alliance. Now, the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have adopted a resolution defending freedom of speech and expression, including speech deemed “offensive or injurious.” It is a triumph for free speech. However, while 98 faculty voted for the resolution, 52 professors voted against the free speech principles.

The Free Expression Statement is a balanced affirmation of the essential role of free speech in higher education.

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.

What is unnerving is that a third of the faculty disagreed with the resolution despite the following reservation:

MIT does not protect direct threats, harassment, plagiarism, or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment. Moreover, the time, place, and manner of protected expression, including organized protests, may be restrained so as not to disrupt the essential activities of the Institute.

However, the statement makes the key acknowledgment that “we cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious.” That is clearly unacceptable for many in academic. Silencing opposing views or voices has become a core principle for many professors who now refer to free speech as an ever present danger on campuses.

MIT has not always stood by free speech. As we previously discussed, the university yielded to cancel culture by barring a guest lecture to be given by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot in 2021.

MIT also attracted criticism over abandoning standardized testing to achieve greater diversity. It later reversed that decision.

The new resolution is a victory for the “MIT Free Speech Alliance,” which has fought to defend free speech against a growing number of faculty.

University of Chicago emeritus biology Professor Jerry Coyne raised some good-faith objections on his Why Evolution Is True blog, including the resolution “calling for ‘civility and mutual respect’, as well as ‘considering the possibility of offense and injury’. You simply cannot have free speech without offense and injury. Abbot’s invitation provoked precisely such offense and injury, with many people supporting his deplatforming.”

However, the references are part of a graph that refers to the personal responsibility of faculty to maintain civility and mutual respect. It follows an express protection for offensive speech:

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.

Overall, the resolution is a powerful defense of free speech. MIT has joined a growing minority of schools resisting the anti-free speech movement discussed in my recent law review article. Jonathan Turley, Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.

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  • Jonathan Turley

    Professor Jonathan Turley is a nationally recognized legal scholar who has written extensively in areas ranging from constitutional law to legal theory to tort law. He has written over three dozen academic articles that have appeared in a variety of leading law journals at Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern, University of Chicago, and other schools.

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