Improving MIT’s written commitment to freedom of expression

We, the undersigned MIT faculty members, urge that the Institute improve its written commitment to academic freedom and free expression by officially adopting the Chicago Principles, as articulated in a 2014 University of Chicago report.1

The Principles, adapted below for MIT (with no changes other than swapping University of Chicago identifiers for MIT identifiers), have been adopted by Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, BU, and 78 other universities and colleges.

If you are an MIT faculty member and wish to add your name to the list of signatories or have any questions, please email freespeech@mit.edu

The Chicago Principles (adapted for MIT)

Because MIT is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the MIT community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the Institute, MIT fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the MIT community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.”

Of course, the ideas of different members of the MIT community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the Institute to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the Institute greatly values civility, and although all members of the MIT community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The Institute may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the Institute. In addition, MIT may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the Institute. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the Institute’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

In a word, MIT’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the MIT community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the MIT community, not for MIT as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the MIT community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the Institute’s educational mission.

As a corollary to the Institute’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the MIT community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the MIT community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the Institute has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

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1The end of Section 4.1.1 of Policies & Procedures says that “faculty members have a right, and the Institute has an obligation, to protect academic freedom in their classroom, in the expression of their ideas in the academic community, and in publishing and disseminating their work.” The preamble to Section 9.0 alludes to “the Institute’s traditional commitment to academic freedom,” and to “education that encourages students to challenge their own views of themselves and the world.” Section II (9) of the Mind & Hand Book briefly mentions that “Freedom of expression is essential to the mission of a university.” The recent draft Values Statement does not contain anything about academic freedom or free expression. Adoption of the Chicago Principles will clearly and prominently express in a single statement the commitments which MIT has already made.