MIT adopts a slightly hedged “free expression” statement

December 22, 2022 • 9:15 am

The Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) was badly burned over the Dorian Abbot affair after it rescinded an invitation to University of Chicago geosciences professor Dorian Abbot to give a prestigious lecture. The invitation was withdrawn after MIT found out that Abbot posted YouTube videos in which he criticized DEI initiatives. It was not good for MIT: Abbot’s disinvitation (his speech was not at all about DEI) was seen as a breach of academic freedom.  This is why, I think, MIT’s faculty just voted to expand and clarify its principles of free expression. The statement below, passed by the MIT faculty yesterday, appears on the freespeech@mit website. The statement is indented, and my comments are flush left.

In general it’s a good statement, for it allows all speech that the First Amendment allows as well—even speech that is “offensive and injurious”.  And it contains a bit that is clearly meant to affirm that MIT’s deplatforming of Abbot was wrong. That deplatforming could no longer occur under MIT’s new principles.

The only objection I have is to the bolded bit in the fifth paragraph, 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. As the NYT wrote:

Then a swell of angry resistance arose. Some faculty members and graduate students argued that Dr. Abbot, a professor at the University of Chicago, had created harm by speaking out against aspects of affirmative action and diversity programs.

HARM! HARM!  You can’t have free speech without harm, much though the word is much overused by the faux offended.  One of the most vociferous offended was the noisome Phoebe Cohen of Williams College, who managed to argue that free speech and intellectual debate are [bad] characteristics of “white men.” Clearly, she was grievously harmed!

Dr. Cohen agreed that Dr. Abbot’s views reflect a broad current in American society. Ideally, she said, a university should not invite speakers who do not share its values on diversity and affirmative action. Nor was she enamored of M.I.T.’s offer to let him speak at a later date to the M.I.T. professors. “Honestly, I don’t know that I agree with that choice,” she said. “To me, the professional consequences are extremely minimal.”

“This idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism comes from a world in which white men dominated,” she replied.

Fortunately, there was more support for Abbot than mushbrained opposition like that of Cohen, and alumni let MIT know they were not happy. L’affaire Abbot wound up giving MIT somewhat of a black eye, and I suspect that’s why they issued the statement below.

Bolding is mine.


The influential 1949 Lewis Report observed that MIT’s mission was “to encourage initiative, to promote the spirit of free and objective inquiry, to recognize and provide opportunities for unusual interests and aptitudes,” and to develop “individuals who will contribute creatively to our society.” With a tradition of celebrating provocative thinking, controversial views, and nonconformity, MIT unequivocally endorses the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom.

Free expression is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a diverse and inclusive community. We cannot have a truly free community of expression if some perspectives can be heard and others cannot. Learning from a diversity of viewpoints, and from the deliberation, debate, and dissent that accompany them, are essential ingredients of academic excellence.

Free expression promotes creativity by affirming the ability to exchange ideas without constraints. It not only facilitates individual autonomy and self-fulfillment, it provides for participation in collective decision-making and is essential to the search for truth and justice. Free expression is enhanced by the doctrine of academic freedom, which protects both intramural and extramural expression without institutional censorship or discipline. Academic freedom promotes scholarly rigor and the testing of ideas by protecting research, publication, and teaching from interference.

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.


At the intersection of the ideal of free expression and MIT community values lies the expectation of a collegial and respectful learning and working environment. 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.

Here we see that the MIT “leaders” can speak out officially on “matters of public interest”, which they should not be doing. This is prohibited by the University of Chicago’s Kalven report, and has the effect of chilling speech. Rather than issuing the caveat “this should be understood as being open to debate,” the leader simply should not be speaking officially about matters of public interest unless they affect the mission and/or workings of the university.

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.

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.

The bold bit above is clearly an expression of the faculty’s disapproval of how MIT deplatformed Dorian Abbot.

MIT has played a leading role in the continuing transformation of communication technology, and recent digital and networked modes of speech make our campus more accessible to all. At the same time, those technologies make our campus more disembodied and more vulnerable to the pull of ideological extremes. Although new modes of speech change the character of expression, such technologies need not and should not lessen our commitment to the values underlying free speech, even as we adapt creatively to meet the needs of our physical and virtual landscapes.

h/t: Allen

27 thoughts on “MIT adopts a slightly hedged “free expression” statement

  1. Abbot’s invitation provoked precisely such offense and injury, …

    Doesn’t that concede too much? The word “injury” reminds me of Jefferson’s comment: “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    I propose we reserve the words “injury” and “harm” for cases where someone’s pocket is picked or leg is broken.

    1. Jefferson begs the question in his comment. The objection would be that his neighbor is possibly imperiling the immoral soul of all who hear the comment, by attempting to weaken their faith in God. Why is “picks my pocket” an injury, but “shakes my faith” not an injury? Money is temporal, but souls are everlasting. And so on.

      1. The distinction between speech/persuasion and leg-breaking/pocket-picking is one we adopt as the foundation of a liberal democracy.

        The alternative is a totalitarian theocracy, as in much of the Muslim world today and Christendom in the Middle Ages.

    2. Speech causes no physical injury; that’s the work of sticks and stones.

      But I don’t doubt its capacity to inflict psychological injury. Nevertheless, a key point to free speech (particularly as established by the First Amendment in the USA) is for the hearer to perdure through such pain. After all, as Papa observed, “afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

      1. Playing Devil’s Advocate, picking his pocket causes no physical injury either (in fact, the whole point of doing it correctly is to make sure there isn’t even a physical effect which is noticed). Yet despite that, it’s deemed “injury”. But his body is not changed in any way. Thus, “injury” is not purely physical, at least to him.

        My point here is that someone proclaiming “I define injury to mean X or Y, but NOT Z”, is not a convincing argument to someone who doesn’t believe it in the first place. It’s not an argument at all, only a definition. Jefferson is just saying “I don’t consider blasphemy to be injury”. You may believe that, I may believe that, but if someone doesn’t believe it, Jefferson has not engaged with their reasoning.

  2. “Speech that **some experience as** offensive…” etc. hits the nail on the head. That some **affect** to experience might be even better…

  3. > You simply cannot have free speech without offense and injury.

    I largely agree. I would probably reword it to “You simply cannot have free speech without the potential for offense and injury.”

    Offense and injury do not necessarily arise from the existence of free speech as a general right, nor from the exercise thereof. The potential, however, is there.

  4. The only objection I have is to the bolded bit in the fifth paragraph, 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.

    Well, there’s speech for which offense and injury are byproducts, and there’s speech the sole raison d’être of which is to give offense and injury. Both are equally protected by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment, but only the former serves the commonweal.

    So long as the MIT principles are read merely to observe this distinction, and not as an effort to chill anyone’s speech, I see no problem with them.

  5. In some cases, “harm” is claimed by individuals of such exquisite sensitivity that they experience criticism of their ideological position as a threat to their very existence. In most cases, however, the “harm” is not actually claimed by such self-described victims; rather, it is merely postulated by administrators or DEI committees on behalf of imaginary victims. The typical statement is that such-and-such a heterodox view is “problematic” because it may affect “marginalized” groups the way sunlight was supposed to affect the Bela Lugosi character in his classic 1930s films. Let’s hope that the new MIT statement reflects a change in conventional academic language—so that clichés about the terrible dangers of sunlight become a little less common.

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