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MIT faculty adopt free expression statement that protects ‘offensive’ speech

Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty have adopted a resolution that defends freedom of speech and expression — even speech some find “offensive or injurious.”

The “Free Expression Statement,” approved by the faculty senate Dec. 21, states that “Learning from a diversity of viewpoints, and from the deliberation, debate, and dissent that accompany them, are essential ingredients of academic excellence.”

The statement was approved by a vote of 98 to 52, a source close to MIT told The College Fix.

“We cannot prohibit speech that some experience as offensive or injurious,” the statement reads.

It had been presented earlier this year by MIT’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression, developed after the venerable university was engulfed in controversy for canceling a guest lecture to be given by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot in 2021.

Activists had led a campaign against Abbot for his comments critical of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs, but he had been slated to speak on climate change, not DEI policies.

If MIT leadership is proud of the statement’s passage, they have not said so it publicly. A roundup touting the institution’s 2022 accomplishments, published a couple days after the statement was approved, does not mention it.

Others have celebrated the development.

“The MIT Free Speech Alliance has from the beginning advocated the free expression statement’s adoption, and we’re very pleased to see the faculty take this step,” MIT Free Speech Alliance President Charles Davis said in a news release. “We especially commend the faculty who tirelessly fought for the statement’s adoption as it was debated this fall.”

Peter Bonilla, MIT Free Speech Alliance’s executive director, called on incoming MIT President Sally Kornbluth to continue to work to defend free speech and academic freedom.

“President Kornbluth can set a strong example by endorsing the free expression statement herself, as well as by considering and implementing the thoughtful recommendations of the free expression working group,” Bonilla said in a news release.

The statement did garner a bit of criticism from its supporters. Writing on his popular Why Evolution Is True blog, University of Chicago emeritus biology Professor Jerry Coyne took issue with the statement’s “slightly hedged” final version.

“The only objection I have is to … 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,” Coyne wrote.

“… You can’t have free speech without harm, much though the word is much overused by the faux offended.”

MORE: MIT moves forward with ‘freedom of expression’ statement

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.