The State of Free Speech on Campus: MIT

By on June 8, 2009

Throughout the spring semester and into the early summer, FIRE is drawing special attention to the state of free speech at America’s top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report). Today we review policies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which FIRE has given a yellow-light rating for maintaining policies that could too easily be used to suppress free speech at the university.

MIT is a private university. However, it holds itself out, through its mission and objectives, as a place where students and faculty are encouraged to engage in unfettered intellectual exploration (in contrast to a place such as Liberty University, which is open about its restrictions and actually requires students to sign a contract signifying their understanding that they are agreeing to keep their expression within the bounds set forth by the college). In MIT’s own words,

The Institute seeks through research and reflection to extend the boundaries of knowledge and the horizons of the human intellect. In so doing, it aims to create an atmosphere of intellectual excitement, a climate of inquiry and innovation in which each student develops a consuming interest in understanding for its own sake. (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, MIT maintains several policies which threaten the "climate of inquiry" that the university has deemed essential to its mission. The first of these is the Institute’s Policy on Racist Behavior. While the policy only explicitly prohibits "harassment or discrimination," it also provides that "The Institute is committed to the elimination of racism and to the thorough handling of any allegation of racist behavior." This apparent commitment to investigate any allegations of racism, whether or not they rise to the level of prohibited harassment and discrimination, threatens to chill free speech on MIT’s campus. After all, even if the investigation does not ultimately result in punishment, few students or faculty members will want to risk the disruption to their academic careers that will inevitably result from being dragged through an investigation for engaging in protected speech. As FIRE first wrote many years ago when a professor at the University of Alaska was investigated for publishing a controversial poem about sexual abuse in the Native Alaskan community, "Individuals in a free societylet alone professors at the universities of a free societyare not investigated for their beliefs and protected expressions.  Those beliefs and expressions are inviolable." (Emphasis added).

Recently, FIRE has been receiving a spate of e-mails from students at universities we have featured in this series essentially saying, "Sure, the policy is there and it looks bad, but I never personally had a problem, nor did anyone else I know, so FIRE is just making a mountain out of a molehill." These students’ faith that universities will practice benign neglect when it comes to infringing upon their rights is, unfortunately, misplaced. The real-life implications of an investigation like those that seem to be countenanced by MIT’s policy can be seen in the case of the College Republicans at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Members of that group were subjected to a protracted disciplinary investigation for stepping on replicas of the Hamas and Hezbollah flags at an anti-terrorism rallyan act wholly protected by the First Amendment. Although the university ultimately decided not to punish the students, the case dragged on for months. One of the students alleged in the group’s lawsuit against SFSU that he spent over 200 hours preparing for his disciplinary hearing and, as a result, received some of his worst grades as an SFSU student in that semester. There are real consequences to kangaroo courts and show trials, even when no official punishment is handed down.

To protect the environment of intellectual excitement, inquiry, and innovation that it professes to hold dear, MIT’s policies must make clear that no one will be subjected to an investigation for engaging in protected expression, even expression that others might deem "racist" (which, it should be pointed out, could easily include many expressions of opinion on controversial but important topics of debate such as affirmative action and immigration.)

Also of concern is MIT’s Policy on Harassment, whichlike so many university harassment policiesmaintains a reasonable definition of harassment but then includes potential examples that serve only to confuse the issue. According to MIT’s policy, potential examples of sexual harassment include "offensive remarks of a sexual nature." This example could include virtually anything, from persistent vulgar comments that truly interfere with someone’s ability to obtain his or her education, to legitimate questions about innate sex differences such as those that cost former Harvard President Larry Summers his job. The fact that the policy, in its examples section, lumps all of these types of speech together islike the vaguely worded racism policylikely to have an impermissible chilling effect on speech at MIT.

Stay tuned next week for information on the state of free speech at Yale.

Schools: Massachusetts Institute of Technology