Harvard and MIT get “Muzzle Awards” for denying free speech

July 8, 2015 • 1:35 pm

This tw**t from Steve Pinker called my attention to two Boston universities (one my alma mater, though it’s the Law School that was shamed) which received “2015 Campus Muzzle Awards” from WGBH, Boston’s Public Broadcasting station. They’re given to those individuals and institutions who most blatantly diminish free speech (go to the bottom of the page to see the university awards).

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The Harvard Law School “Muzzie” was given for its disinviting a speaker who had already been invited, an act I consider censorship.  (If you choose not to invite a controversial speaker who might spark interesting conversation, I consider that reprehensible but not censorship.) Tellingly—and as often happens—it was the students and not the faculty behind such disinvitations:

Harvard University, a distressingly frequent recipient of Campus Muzzle Awards, wins the honor this year because of the Law School’s “disinvitation” of a controversial speaker.

The silencing of Robin Steinberg followed an all-too-familiar script: The Bronx Defenders Executive Director was invited to speak at the Law School, someone protested, and Ms. Steinberg’s invitation was rescinded. The two groups that initially invited Steinberg — the Women’s Law Association (WLA) and the Law and International Development Society (LIDS) — had also planned to honor Steinberg at the school’s International Women’s Day Exhibit, but they backpedaled from this as well.

The controversy lay in Steinberg’s participation in a rap video that contained violent anti-cop sentiments. In January 2015, New York City officials found Steinberg responsible for misconduct and mismanagement related to the video. On February 16, the New York Post reported on Steinberg’s invitation and implicitly condemned Harvard’s decision to invite and honor her. The student groups reacted to the bad press quickly; by the end of the day, Steinberg had been disinvited.

Notably, the larger Law School community decried the student groups’ decision to disinvite Steinberg. The Harvard Law Record published a letter with more than 180 signatories (including students, alumni, and faculty) arguing that Steinberg’s overall career amply qualified her as a speaker and Women’s Day honoree. Unfortunately, the student groups did not change course.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) got its award for sneakily burying restrictions on free speech in its “anti-hazing” policy (“hazing” is the deplorable practice in some American colleges of older students humiliating and sometimes physically abusing first-year students as part of a coming-of-age ritual). But in the MIT policy is a stinger:

This past September, Brian L. Spatocco, a doctoral candidate in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, wrote an op-ed inThe Tech, the independent student newspaper, criticizing MIT’s new hazing policy. As is now common on college campuses, where administrators are wont to deny that the school has a “speech code” (which sounds like censorship, after all), MIT has buried speech restrictions in, among other places, its “hazing” policy.

“Hazing,” which Massachusetts criminal law defines as “any conduct or method of initiation … which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person,” is, as of this academic year, defined by MIT far more broadly:

“Any action or activity that causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress, that may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.”

So, you’re guilty of hazing at MIT if you inflict “mental discomfort” on a fellow student, or “demean” that person, even if you do not have the “intent” to do so. Under this standard, you’d be hard pressed to find someone on MIT’s campus who wasn’t “hazing” other students.

I’m not sure if this policy has yet been used to punish anyone, but in fact it could be applied in principle to faculty as well, including professors who teach evolution to religious students, for that would discomfit them as they tried to integrate into the university community. This goes far beyond the kind of abuse (including forced drinking of alcohol, physical punishment and so on) traditionally considered “hazing.” Once again we see “mental discomfort” as one of the criteria for violation, a criterion that, as noted above, goes way beyond the state’s criminal law. What’s next at MIT: “safe spaces” with puppy videos, balloons, and Play-Doh?

The other Muzzle Awards go to Brown University for trying to reduce attendance at a controversial debate on rape by scheduling a “safe debate” at exactly the same time (this was apparently done by the University President); to SUNY Buffalo State for censoring a student newspaper that was satirizing US drone strikes overseas; and to Norwich University in Vermont for banning the use of the social networking application Yik Yak, a message board that often says rough things about students (the University President  noted that “[Yik Yak] is hurting my students right now. They are feeling awkward, they are feeling hurt, they are feeling threatened.”) The proper way to deal with this is what Colgate University did: professors used the app for “counter speech” promoting kinder and happier messages.


33 thoughts on “Harvard and MIT get “Muzzle Awards” for denying free speech

  1. “Any action or activity that causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress, that may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person”

    For some students this could result from getting an A-.

    1. Right, but we all know the University would never allow such a complaint to go forward. The point here is to create an overbroad rule so that covers all behavior – both the types they approve of and the types they don’t approve of – and then selectively enforce the rule only on those behaviors they disapprove of.

      Its the old Soviet attitude towards law enforcement: make it impossible to live normally without breaking the law. Then you always have legal coverage for arresting who you want, when you want.

      1. Sure, this policy is not likely to be applied against faculty in their normal academic roles, and administrative discretion will nip most complaints in the bud. But there are quasi-academic program that are very likely to be affected. How is a collegiate debate team supposed to function, for example? Their whole purpose is to aggressively dismantle students’ views on controversial and sensitive topics — which may include things like abortion, race, feminism, euthanasia — topics that have been targets of student-driven censorship campaigns in recent events. I’d imagine the debate team would be considered mentally distressing by many of the students who are involved in censorship campaigns.

        1. I will function just fine because a debate team is not student speech the administration finds threatening or offensive. Because of that, any student complaint about getting their feelings hurt by opposing debaters will be ignored. As I said above, the result will be selective enforcement. You’re trying to ask how they could possibly enforce such a rule even-handedly. The answer is: they won’t.

          1. There have been incidents both in the UK (e.g. Oxford) and in the US (e.g. UC Santa Barbara) where activists shut down speech or debate events surrounding abortion or other topics. I’m not just complaining about non-uniform enforcement, I’m suggesting that this kind of policy could feasibly be abused to interfere with legitimate academic speech and debate activities.

            1. Of course it can; that is entirely the point. To be able to shut down speech based solely on what the administration thinks of its content, regardless of context. To fashion a rule that does not actually restrict the administration’s choices of who to censor or when.

  2. What is the level of “physical discomfort” they are speaking of? Pinch, bruising, cut, hit by a bat, itching powder etc…?

    What they mean is no one feels less than joyous which in itself isn’t normal. What the film “Inside Out” is all about.

    Looks to me like all that needs to be reviewed and not just by the school, but the students as well.

    And what cjwinstead said.

  3. Last time I commented about the restriction of free speech on this site, someone got upset because they felt my comment lumped groups from the left in with groups from the right. I should have made it clear, they said, that groups from the right were much worse. I’ve had similar comments on my own website, where some people think it’s not as bad when the left does it, basically because they approve of their motives.

    The muzzling of free speech is wrong whoever does it and whatever their motives imo. The proper way to counter speech you don’t agree with is by providing better arguments, not by shutting down those you don’t agree with.

    Unless speech specifically advocates violence it must be allowed, however revolting you consider what that person is saying. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of that speech, and if you’re Donald Trump, you have to accept the consequences of your ignorance. It doesn’t mean you can’t spout your rubbish in the first place.

    I agree with Jerry’s position on the dis-inviting thing too – not inviting someone in the first place is fine, but changing your mind later isn’t except in the most exceptional of circumstances, which don’t include someone’s feelings getting hurt.

    1. ..”and if you’re Donald Trump, you have to accept the consequences of your ignorance.”
      That is, of course, not the Trump that I know 😉

    2. Yep I agree. I get that Boston station here too! Good on them for calling attention to this.

    3. A couple of years ago, I was shouted down on an atheist board for pointing out where’anti bullying ‘ rules were headed. And it’s getting worse.

      BTW in the present climate, I think the left has become the more dangerous source of censorship.

    4. I agree Heather. I wonder though, not having read the exchange, whether by worse, they meant silencing the opposition was a strategy employed more often by the right? I think that is true, but I’m more bothered by the left doing it.
      There was a time when we on the left took pride in the fact that it was unnecessary for us to silence the opposition because we were correct and could win our points, and move our policies, and positions forward based on the merits of the argument.
      This is just one tactic employed by people I would describe as social justice warriors. People people who resort to the same tactics that used to be almost exclusive to the right. Propaganda, disingenuous misrepresentation of the facts, strawmanning, ad hominem, and silencing the opposition.
      My catch phrase is for it “all’s fair in love, and social justice warring”. They don’t even consider their tactics wrong because they are being done to advance what most of us on the left would agree are “good causes”. I don’t agree that the ends justify the means.

      1. Hi Mike, if that’s what they were saying, I might have agreed with them, but this person thought I should change my comment.

        I sort of expect it from the right too, and it concerns me that it is happening on the left so much now as well.

        I’m like you – I took pride that our arguments were correct so we didn’t have to shut anybody down. One of my favourite things was to let them hang themselves by letting them keep talking, because they always revealed themselves that way.

        And I see the same thing as you with many of these SJWs – there seems to be a lot of “ends justifies the means” behaviour. An “it’s OK when we do it because we’re the good guys” attitude. It’s just wrong imo.

      2. I expect on University campuses, the left does it (censoring) more simply because on most campuses there are many more liberals than conservatives both in the student body and among the professors. Its the old ‘power corrupts’ problem. If you consider social situations outside of academia (corporations, state and local government, etc…) then it may be the other way around.

        Though I think Greg Lukianoff had a good point about University administrations in his book: their motivations for censorship are typically neither left nor right, but rather focused on preventing any student speech that negatively targets them, the administrators. IOW they are often neither leftist ideologues or rightist ideologues, but rather mere tinpot dictators.

    5. I was in full agreement with you up to “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences”, because that’s pretty much the base idea for liberal censorship. Calling for someone to get fired or dis-invited, which the word “consequences” implies, is obviously not the same as “providing better arguments”. And if we’re prepared to call for consequences to hit Donald Trump (or even quietly celebrate all the deals he lost as a result of his tirade about Mexicans), then let’s not get outraged that people dare to call for consequences for someone who said something we agree with.

    6. The whole point about freedom of speech is that it applies to anybody and everybody whatever they wish to say and whatever their political creed. The politically self-righteous seem to have got it into their heads that freedom of speech means ‘freedom to say anything I agree with but not to say anything I disapprove of’.

      These students need to grow up and understand that unless they guard and respect freedom of speech as a precious right for all, they too might someday find themselves silenced.

  4. Perhaps we can persuade Pliny the Inbetween to give us the link to the latest Evolving Perspectives cartoon about freedom of speech? I’m on the wrong device to find it for a few hours.

      1. It was the second witch hunt one I meant. I sort of thought the principle applied to what I was saying in my comment above.

        I like the first one too – it always comes to mind when we discuss the snowflakes here, and I did think of it when Jerry mentioned the puppy videos etc above. 🙂

  5. You have the right to remain silent, and you damn well better do so on campus.

    You have the right to be a vocal SJW, but not to disagree with them, or even discuss the possibility of a different point of view.

    Everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of public opinion. and twitter.

  6. Both Harvard and MIT are rated among the top 10 schools in the world by various rating agencies. As are a couple of examples from previous years, UC Berkeley and Stanford. Maybe those rating agencies should take this stuff into account in compiling their ratings.

  7. Norwich is a military academy isn’t it?
    Well… we cant have the feeling hurt of our future Army commissioned officers can we. Imagine IS calling then nasty names; ” Go home you dirty infidel”. So with their feelings hurt they did.

    1. Would you say that those not participating in such a military program of training and its associated apparent hazing are missing out?

  8. The op-ed writer who criticized the anti-hazing policy seems unable to read a whole sentence. Neither does WGBH, apparently.

    The whole sentence: “Any action or activity that causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress … for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community“. It’s clear that given the restriction on purpose, the policy doesn’t outlaw (in fact, doesn’t say anything about) any activity that doesn’t have an initiation purpose and is not a condition for membership in a social group.

    No need to worry about teaching students evolution, giving them (deserved) poor grades, etc — unless there is a club or something they can’t join or stay in unless they accept evolution/get a good grade, but even then one would be insane to argue that teaching and grading are part of some initiation method covered by the policy.

    I have to say this is my first time hearing about the Muzzle Awards, and so far I’m not too impressed by the judges.

    1. I agree with your reading, which seemed pretty clear to me. I still disagree with the restrictions on speech within that scope, but the scope of the restrictions is limited.

    2. MIT itself is a “living community.” If I walk around saying nasty things to other students, then one could easily argue that I have made ‘causing discomfort’ a condition for continued living in the MIT community…and thus, I’m hazing.

      Sure, someone could read the rule more narrowly. I think part of the reason the muzzle award applies is because the rule is written in a broad way that allows the university to apply it (a) claim it doesn’t apply to cases they don’t want to punish, but (b) claim it does apply to any behavior they do want to punish.

      1. I’ll flip it around and say that one could read the rule more broadly, as you do. But it would be a far stretch. Seems clear to me that such a broad reading is not what the policy makers intended. If their intention were as you say, I’m sure they’d call it not “anti-hazing”, but something like “safe campus” policy.

        Now a safe campus policy is of course a very bad idea, as most people here (me included) agree. But I don’t think just the anti-hazing part, if applied true to the intention, is necessarily a bad thing too. You can say whatever you want; just don’t make it a condition that people must listen to you before they can join the frat party. What’s so wrong with that? I personally don’t see anything wrong with that. You may disagree, but at least the issue is nowhere as clear cut as the award judges (and the misguided op-ed they cite as though it were the last word on what the policy is going to do) make it out to be.

        Yes, I can imagine the school administration going crazy and distorting the policy beyond recognition (words don’t enforce themselves, and are always susceptible to distortion — anyone surprised?), but giving a muzzle award for just making the policy is to my mind like calling those who drafted and passed 2nd Amendment gun nuts.

    3. Membership in group. Are people who are signed up to (say) take biology as program of study a group? What if it was a biology students association, which required members to be a student in the discipline?

      1. The answer is “yes those are groups if/when the university doesn’t like your speech. No those don’t count if/when the university likes your speech.”

        1. I think to count as a group regulated by the policy it must be social in nature, as implied by the very word “hazing” (so a biology class — whoever signed up to learn biology — is not a group, but a bio student association may be). And there must be some sort of publicly established criteria for joining the group, because only this kind of group can be conceivably monitored and regulated by the administration (thus John’s fb friends do not form a group: the criterion is not a result of public process, but simply a matter of whether John knows and likes you).

          I haven’t read the actual policy (except the bit quoted here) so these are just my guesses, based on the assumption that the policy makers are reasonable people sincerely wanting to address the hazing problem and not using it as a pretext for suppressing speech they don’t like. But I think this should be the default assumption. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t understand why one would immediately suspect the worst, absent any actual evidence.

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