MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVII No. 1
September/October 2004
Welcome Aboard President-elect Hockfield!
The Management of the MIT Endowment
Affirming Freedom of Expression at MIT
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Preliminary Position of the Faculty Policy Committee on Faculty Governance
Developing Musical Structures:
A Reflective Practicuum
Work of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program, 2003 – 2004
Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons
Some Reflections on Aspects of the Undergraduate Education Policy
Benefit Changes for Faculty
Upon Retirement
Short Takes
Establishing Leadership in the Emerging Field of Engineering Systems
Concerto for Erhu and Subway
Spaces, Software, and Services –
Supporting Educational Innovation and Sustainability with Technology
Web Accessibility:
What Faculty Should Know
What Was it Like Working with OCW?
Printable Version


Affirming Freedom of Expression at MIT

The events of 9/11 and the environment generated in response to 9/11, in particular the passage of the Patriot Act and the expansion of Homeland Security apparatus, have generated new dangers to the maintenance of free inquiry, expression, and speech that is the lifeblood of great universities. In particular, the issue of freedom of expression has emerged dramatically as a result of events at MIT's graduation last spring, and we feel strongly that the right to freedom of expression at MIT needs to be affirmed quickly and decisively.

At the June 2004 MIT Commencement, the MIT campus police prevented four members of the MIT Social Justice collaborative – three undergraduates and one alumnus – from peacefully leafleting marchers at graduation. They were actively prevented from handing out leaflets, and one was arrested.

We believe that these acts constitute a serious violation of the Constitutional rights of the students and alumnus involved. Their leaflets spoke to issues of campus, scientific, and national relevance, and civilian vs. military priorities in the budget of the National Institutes of Health. The leafleters accosted no one, nor did they interfere with the progress of the graduation ceremonies. The subsequent release of the arrested leafleter, with charges dropped, is not an exoneration of the police actions. Arrests are chilling, and arresting and then releasing and dropping charges is a classic mechanism of suppression of free speech when no law has been violated.

Freedom of expression, particularly political speech, is a cornerstone of modern democracy. The right of free expression is of particular importance in the university, in part in support of the broader democratic goal, in part because of the necessity of the fullest freedom of expression for optimal progress in the academic enterprise. For these reasons, the MIT faculty needs to insist that

1) The suppression of freedom of expression at Commencement 2004 was unacceptable and needs to be condemned by the MIT administration, not excused.

2) The protection of the rights of expression of everyone - students, staff and faculty – is a fundamental task of campus police, and that

3) University rules and regulations protecting freedom of expression be strengthened in the coming period.

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Among the reforms that we feel deserve serious consideration:

•  Establishment of a Faculty/Staff/Student Review Board, modeled after Civilian Review Boards, to oversee police actions on the campus.

•  The expansion of the MIT Campus Police mission to explicitly include the protection of the rights of freedom of expression and assembly of students, staff, and faculty.

To give some historical context to the viewpoint we express above, we note that despite its role as a leading partner in military research and national defense policy, MIT has a long history of sustaining dissent - from the nuclear disarmament movement led by physicists Vicki Weisskopf, Herman Feshbach, Phillip Morrison, Aron Bernstein, and Henry Kendall, to the Scientists Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War, led by David Baltimore, Ethan Signer, and others, to the Middle East critiques by Noam Chomsky and associates, to the student critiques and actions against the Gulf War and the current war in Iraq.

There have always been attempts to limit expression on such controversial issues, not only with respect to national policy debates, but also with respect to MIT policies. This faculty newsletter was founded because faculty members realized they had no independent means of publicly addressing each other or collectively criticizing the administration. The Newsletter's survival in its early years depended critically on an active struggle by faculty supporters.

Thus we are particularly sensitive to the issue of freedom of expression at MIT. Leafleting of those attending the graduation march has been a frequent activity during the past four decades. Why do we suddenly witness such constitutionally protected speech being suppressed?

The most likely explanation is the changing political climate and the current federal administration's promotion of the Patriot Act and related initiatives, the chilling effect of which is to encourage self-censorship and inhibit many forms of political expression and assembly. We see this in the corralling of demonstrators at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and in the treatment of four young people on their and our campus.

Those of us old enough to have experienced the McCarthy period or the Civil Rights struggle are familiar with the use of a supposed internal enemy to justify suppression. In this coming period, MIT and other colleges and universities have an added responsibility to defend freedom of expression and assembly as granted in the Bill of Rights, and to ensure that the truth is not a major casualty of the war on terrorism.

We need to take the first steps in our own backyard, and guarantee that suppression of dissent does not become accepted campus policy. There is some danger that the actions needed on this issue will fall between the old and new administration, with neither taking responsibility. We feel that the faculty must ensure that these deep issues are dealt with seriously and effectively. Our failure to do so will abrogate our responsibility to maintain the atmosphere of free inquiry, expression, and speech that is the lifeblood of great universities.

Editorial Sub-Committee
Jeanne S. Bamberger
John Belcher
Nazli Choucri
Jean E. Jackson
Jonathan King
Fred Moavenzadeh

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