The motivating telos of the MIT Free Speech Alliance is to help MIT remain a place where engagement with diverse perspectives and innovation are central to the MIT experience. We believe that this is crucial for MIT to maintain its position as a unique institution of excellence in science and engineering education and research.
The values of free expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom are necessary preconditions to achieving this end. They are also essential to the continuing advancement of science itself. MIT became the preeminent STEM university in the world through strong, unflinching support for these values throughout its history.
Upholding values of free expression is not always easy, particularly in polarized times. It means being willing to stand up to social media cancel mobs and to protect the right to voice unpopular opinions, even ones viewed as offensive. In recent years, in word and deed, MIT has fallen short of upholding these values, most famously when it allowed for the cancellation of an invited talk by Dr. Dorian Abbot due to his views on academic hiring and admissions policies. The mission of the MIT Free Speech Alliance is to remind the MIT community that its foundational values cannot be compromised without also compromising MIT’s long tradition of excellence and its commitment to scientific inquiry and innovation.
As a concrete move towards restoring these values, the MIT Free Speech Alliance advocated that MIT adopt the Chicago Principles as its free expression policy, implement institutional mechanisms to support them, and build a culture and practice of support for free speech throughout the MIT community. The adoption of a Statement on Free Expression in 2022 by the MIT faculty and the MIT administration was a solid initial step since it closely follows the Chicago Principles.
MFSA advocates for free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom across the MIT community, for all members of the community, regardless of their viewpoints or ideological commitments.
Many MIT alumni have grown concerned about developments at MIT that diminish its historic standards of excellence in education, research, and innovation. In particular, some MIT alumni are concerned about the growing tendency towards speech suppression, censorship, cancellation and harassment of non-conforming viewpoints. A catalyst for the founding of MFSA was MIT’s cancellation of Dr. Dorian Abbot’s Carlson Lecture in October 2021.
The MIT Free Speech Alliance was founded specifically to provide concerned members of the MIT family a means to provide MIT feedback about the critical importance of free speech and expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom on the campus.
The MIT Free Speech Alliance is an independent association that was founded and is governed by MIT alumni volunteers. MFSA is independent of both MIT and the MIT Alumni Association.
MFSA has filed a written application to become formally affiliated with the MIT Alumni Association, similar to other special interest and affinity groups of MIT alumni. To date, the MIT Alumni Association has declined to consider MFSA’s application and has not specified why.
MFSA is a completely independent organization focused on promoting and defending the values of free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT. MFSA is governed and led by independent MIT alumni under its own corporate charter.
In particular, MFSA is not a part of MIT or of the MIT Alumni Association. MFSA speaks solely for itself and its members and does not represent the viewpoints or positions of MIT.
MFSA does ally with other organizations which promote and defend free speech on college campuses. As such, MFSA is a member of the umbrella organization Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA) along with similar alumni-led free speech advocacy organizations at other universities. A past president of MFSA is now the president of AFSA. MFSA also liaises with other organizations that promote and defend free speech, viewpoint diversity, and academic freedom in education, including the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), Heterodox Academy (HxA), and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
The Stanton Foundation provided a founding grant to MFSA to pursue its mission statement to support the values of free expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT. The Stanton Foundation grant requires MFSA to achieve specific milestones in terms of on-campus programs, external fundraising, and membership recruitment. MFSA has defined its own on-campus programs to satisfy the Stanton Foundation requirements. The Stanton Foundation does not stipulate any specific policies, programs, editorial statements, or operating limitations on MFSA. There are no strings from the Stanton Foundation grant other than to pursue improving the free speech culture at MIT.
MFSA is strictly non-partisan. It exists to promote and defend the cardinal values of free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom across the MIT community. MFSA recognizes that free speech is under attack from many detractors across the political spectrum – from the so-called Left and the so-called Right – across the United States as well as on the MIT campus. MFSA takes no official position on any issues other than those directly impacting free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT.
MFSA is organized as a non-profit corporation under the laws of Massachusetts and is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit with the US Internal Revenue Service. As such, MFSA is not allowed to engage in political activity or lobbying of any kind.
The cancellation of Dr. Dorian Abbot’s 2021 Carlson Lecture with the full support of MIT’s top administrators in response to a mob outcry over his unrelated criticisms of university DEI programs is irrefutable evidence that there is a free speech problem at MIT. This is only the visible tip of the iceberg of cancel culture that has established deep roots at MIT. There are other troubling indicators that speech suppression is occurring at MIT, and that a significant number of the faculty, students and staff are practicing frequent self-censorship.
MIT is the preeminent university for science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States, and arguably the world.
Support and tolerance for the values of free expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom are a critical precondition to the continuing advancement of science. Advancements in scientific knowledge can come from any scientist, and science cannot advance if skeptical examination of alternative theories is suppressed. The noble advancement of scientific knowledge – the very hallmark of MIT – depends on free expression, diversity of viewpoints, and the freedom to pursue academic inquiry and investigation.
MIT’s reputation is its primary value in attracting the best faculty and the best undergraduate and graduate students. It is also a primary means through which it attracts the most challenging and rewarding sponsored-research opportunities. MIT cannot continue to attract the best educators, researchers, and scholars if they believe that their innovative ideas may be suppressed.
While there is a lot of overlap in the concepts of "free speech" and "academic freedom", and both are crucial to the advancement of science and preservation of democratic ideals, there are important distinctions. "Free speech" is a basic freedom afforded every citizen by virtue of their humanity.
"Academic freedom", by contrast, is a specific right (which comes with responsibilities) afforded to academic professors (and in some contexts, to other instructors and to students) by virtue of their role and standing in the academic community. Both apply to the university campus, but in slightly different ways. For example, we are referring to "free speech" when we talk about the right of students to engage in protest, or participate in activities related to ideological or religious affiliations. However, students don't have unlimited rights to express themselves in the classroom. We are referring to "academic freedom" when we talk about the right of professors to teach or conduct research on unpopular ideas or topics, or to criticize the government or other institutions or policies (including at their own institutions) without fear of reprisals by their employer or being fired. This is a right that is specific to academics - employees of other kinds of institutions don't typically have this right. Academic freedom does not confer unlimited rights on professors, however. Universities can, for example, dictate which classes a professor will teach, although professors are generally given the widest possible latitude as experts in their field regarding what they say in the classroom, as long as it is "on topic". And professors are expected to engage in their subject matters, whether in their research or in the classroom, in a good faith attempt to search for, and communicate about, the truth. The boundaries between free speech and academic freedom, and who is afforded what rights in which contexts in an academic setting, are the subject of much valuable discussion and debate. At MFSA, we believe that both free speech and academic freedom should be interpreted with the broadest possible latitude, and limits imposed only where they are absolutely indispensable for the functioning of the institution.
The MIT Free Speech Alliance believes that any form or amount of suppression of speech, whether at a public or private university, that would be protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution is unacceptable. Speech suppression is particularly incompatible at a university that wants to continue being the best in the world. Although the Institute can set time, place and manner restrictions on the form of speech to not impede the basic functioning of the university, these restrictions should not be so onerous or burdensome as to constrain free expression.
Within the last three years MIT performed two acts of visible speech suppression – the cancellation of the Dr. Dorian Abbot’s Carlson Lecture, and its involvement in the forced resignation of the MIT chaplain, Father Maloney. Following these egregious actions MIT’s administration gaslighted the alumni community about its involvement in and its real reasons for its actions and comments. In addition to these visible manifestations, a majority of the faculty polled at the end of 2021 during two faculty meetings indicated that they felt that their voices, or the voices of their colleagues, are constrained at MIT. MIT continues to receive a yellow light rating in an annual survey of college speech policies by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Based on annual student surveys, FIRE also ranked MIT #76 among 159 major colleges in terms of support for free speech on campus. [Link]
In addition, MIT operates strong institutional mechanisms that are traditionally misemployed to suppress free expression on college campuses. MIT allows anonymous allegations of offensive speech to be filed against faculty, staff, or students; allegations which may trigger an administrative investigation, and they are filed and retained in MIT’s instance of the Maxient records system. For administrative actions, MIT operates an Institute Discrimination & Harassment Response (IDHR) Office with a full-time staff of 11. In addition, for cases not handled solely by IDHR, MIT operates a Bias Response Team whose membership consists of 16 senior administrators drawn from around MIT, and includes the MIT Police, the MIT General Counsel and student discipline deans as well as the usual HR and DEI staff. All of these operations are an affront to due process, transparency, and the rule of law, and they work to suppress open discourse.
Based on these objective measures, administrative institutions and on conversations with many members of the MIT community, the MIT Free Speech Alliance believes that speech and viewpoint suppression is occurring widely at MIT, particularly but not exclusively in the form of self-censorship, and it is getting worse.
Advancements in scientific knowledge start out as challenges to the prevailing orthodoxy. These innovations always appear to be wrong to many scientists. These challenges understandably provoke disagreements with the then prevailing scientific establishment. Those disagreements are often spirited, rancorous and emotional. History has numerous examples of heretical scientists who were initially challenged, and also dismissed, ridiculed, and even persecuted – from Galileo to Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, and many others. But those challenges that survive the strict scrutiny of the scientific method then became the new orthodoxy moving forward.
While most heretical or unorthodox opinions are ultimately shown to be false, it cannot be known ahead of time which are the exception, and therefore science cannot advance if dissent is suppressed. The defenders of science orthodoxy attempt to discredit or silence dissenters through any means, not just challenging the quality of their science but through demonization and ad hominem attacks. The scientific method, not Twitter mobs, should eventually decide which theories or viewpoints are right or wrong, based on objective evidence that most scientists eventually acknowledge.
MFSA believes that no speech should be suppressed, so long as it does not directly incite physical violence, violate contracts (e.g., confidentiality, fraud) or otherwise break statute law. Speech should not be suppressed just because it is inconsiderate, boorish, disrespectful, or insensitive. Hate speech has sometimes become just another label for speech I disagree with or speech I don’t like. Whether any speech qualifies as hate speech is often in the intent of the speaker, the context, or the subjective reaction of the listener, none of which can be verified objectively. Even if hate speech is meant to cause hurt feelings, that does not justify suppression. The best way to counter hate speech is with more speech that counters its arguments or insinuations, denounces it, and promotes alternative viewpoints.
The book Hate: Why we should resist it with free speech, not censorship, by former ACLU President Nadine Strossen, makes a compelling argument for the incoherence and negative impacts of so-called hate speech rules, and is recommended reading for anyone interested in these issues. For those concerned about the impact of hate speech on marginalized groups, she articulates very clearly how such rules inevitably are used to harm the very groups they are designed to protect.
MFSA believes that anyone and everyone should have the right to make a fool of themselves in public.
The MIT faculty’s adoption of its Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom was a strong positive step towards restoring free speech within the MIT community. President Kornbluth’s endorsement of that Statement for the entire MIT community was a similarly positive move. But as President Kornbluth noted in her endorsement, for this statement to truly take root and advance the interests of our community, we can’t just post it and hope for the best.
MFSA concurs that restoring a culture of free, wide ranging and open expression at MIT will require both time and effort. As a first measure, the Institute’s commitment to changing the current culture, and to reinforcing the values of free expression, need to be communicated strongly, broadly, and often by the senior leadership of MIT. In addition, those policies and institutional mechanisms that have accumulated over the years which tend to suppress free expression and enable cancel culture need to be dismantled. There are many other specific actions which MIT needs to take, which although not sufficient to change culture in themselves, can together help restore the open culture that MIT was built on. Unfortunately, no specific implementation actions seem to have yet been taken following the adoption of the Free Expression Statement.
MIT earned its reputation as the preeminent STEM university in the world through decades of unrelenting excellence in STEM education and research.
The members of the MIT Free Speech Alliance all hold MIT in the highest regard, and we are all committed to helping MIT maintain its exceptionalism. We do not believe that MIT can maintain its current excellence and uniqueness if it is suppressing freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom on its campus.
MIT has already tarnished its own reputation through its visible suppressions of free speech. MIT made a mistake when it canceled Dr. Abbot’s Carlson Lecture, a mistake that it never acknowledged and for which it never apologized. But MIT is making a larger mistake by continuing to indulge a culture that tolerates and practices suppression of some expressions and viewpoints. If MIT continues to allow free expression to be suppressed on campus, it will slowly but inevitably continue degrading its position as a STEM university.
MIT will need to go through some catharsis to reverse the culture which is degrading MIT by condoning speech suppression. Because of MIT’s importance, reputation, and visibility, some of this cathartic transition will be unavoidably public. This is unfortunate, but it is an essential process for MIT to correct its culture and maintain its premier position among STEM universities.
The most important reason to join the MIT Free Speech Alliance is to demonstrate support for the values of free expression, diversity of perspective and academic freedom at MIT. MIT’s move away from these values came about from social pressure both internally and online. Its recent moves to restore support for free expression have only come in response to pressure from MFSA and others who hold these values dear.
Membership in MFSA is open to a wide range of people who care both about MIT as the premier STEM university and who view free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom as core enabling values for the advancement of knowledge, particularly in STEM disciplines. Although MFSA is completely independent from MIT itself, it was organized by and is led by MIT alumni. All members of the MIT community – alumni, faculty, students, parents of students, and staff – are welcome – as are friends of MIT who care about these values and MIT’s exceptionalism.
Membership in MFSA is free! MFSA does not believe that a cost should be imposed for demonstrating support for freedom of expression, diversity of viewpoints and academic freedom at MIT. MFSA does not require an upfront charge to join and does not charge annual dues to belong. Most MFSA materials, website access and virtual events are free to members. From time to time, we will solicit members for donations, both donations of their time as volunteers and donations of financial support.
The easiest way to support free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT is by joining the MIT Free Speech Alliance. Joining the ranks of MFSA members signals to MIT that free expression is important to you and to MIT’s future.
You can also support free speech at MIT by staying connected with the Institute and by staying informed about free speech issues on campus. While MFSA will help publicize these issues to its members, individual members of the MIT community should also rely on their own contacts, data collection and research. You cannot rely solely on either MIT or the MIT Alumni Association to provide reliable information about free speech issues since both organizations have demonstrated that they will not provide full and accurate disclosure about speech suppression on campus.
Another way that you can support free speech at MIT is by communicating your values and your concerns to the MIT administration and to the academic leadership of your School and Department. MFSA provides templates and tools to help you get started with your own personal advocacy for free speech at the Institute. While engaging in advocacy, please ensure that you remain respectful and constructive.
There are many ways to support the MIT Free Speech Alliance. One of the most important is to join as a public member, thereby signaling to MIT that the values of free speech, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom are important for it to maintain its tradition and position of excellence in STEM education, research, and innovation.
The next most important way to support MFSA is to let your classmates and fellow MITer’s know about the cancel culture and self-censorship occurring at MIT, introduce them to MFSA and encourage them to join.
Another great way to support MFSA is by volunteering your time. MFSA has few paid staff, and most of our work is performed by MIT alumni and student volunteers. MFSA always needs volunteers to advocate within MIT, research and prepare informative content, reach out to new members and donors, plan and organize events, operate our website and social media presence, and otherwise help us pursue our mission.
You can also support the MIT Free Speech Alliance with a generous tax-deductible direct financial donation. In addition, you can provide financial support for freedom of expression at MIT by making a donation to the MFSA Concerned Donor Advised fund, which makes grants to programs, centers, courses, and projects directly related to advancing free speech at MIT.
Larger segments of society are waking up to the widespread and pernicious attacks on free speech from across the political and ideological spectrum, accompanied by surreptitious censorship efforts perpetrated by legacy mainstream and social media. The national Overton window on this problem is widening, and more proponents of free speech are becoming visible, active, vocal, and recognized. The MIT Free Speech Alliance is the MIT community’s own advocate.
When the MIT Free Speech Alliance was founded, MIT did not have a firm written policy to support free speech. The subject of the tradeoffs between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Merit, Fairness and Equality (MFE) could not be discussed in a public forum. In the first 1-1/2 years after the founding of MFSA, MIT now has an official policy on freedom of expression and the pluses and minuses of DEI were debated publicly on campus.
MFSA has already proven that it can make an impact on restoring freedom of expression at MIT. We will continue to make an impact to restore a culture of free-wheeling, open, and vigorous intellectual debate on campus.
Each MIT graduate, whether from the undergraduate program or from a graduate school, needs to decide how much attending MIT meant to their life, their personal development, and their career. We each decide whether we are proud of graduating from the best and most prestigious STEM university in the world. Most of us have benefited from a halo effect from having graduated from such a widely known and well-respected university. Preserving MIT’s reputation benefits the reputations of all its alumni. Each MIT graduate also needs to decide whether the many benefits received from attending MIT provide a motivation to assure a similar benefit for future scientists and engineers of all backgrounds. MIT gave each graduate a boost to flourish in life, and each graduate can give back to those who follow.
Cancel culture is a general problem in society, not just at MIT. People have lost their jobs, had their careers ended, and been excluded from their livelihoods by expressing viewpoints that differ from certain ideologies.
MFSA neither asks nor expects the advocates for free speech at MIT to expose themselves to such retaliation. People can join MFSA anonymously, with their names not even published in the member directory, while still receiving information from MFSA, privileges to attend MFSA events, and access to the MFSA member website. MFSA also accepts anonymous financial donations, and its donors do not need to be publicly disclosed.
The MIT Alumni Association is an important extension of MIT. It is a major means by which MIT communicates with its alumni and shares information with them. The Alumni Association is also the primary organization that MIT uses to raise donations and contributions from alumni. Besides continuing to preserve a sense of community among all graduates of MIT (including managing reunions), the Alumni Association provides value to alumni through continuing education programs, recognition of alumni accomplishments, and sponsoring regional clubs and special interest groups of MIT graduates. The MIT Alumni Association is part of the Institute and its budget is completely provided by MIT.
It is not a function of the MIT Alumni Association, however, to communicate to MIT on behalf of alumni. The Alumni Association does not poll or survey alumni, and it does not have a means of representing the viewpoints of alumni (other than those of the carefully groomed and selected officers of the Association). The mission of the MIT Alumni Association is to communicate from MIT to alumni, not to enable communication from alumni to MIT. Communication from the MIT Alumni Association represents official MIT positions, and as we saw with Dr. Abbot’s cancellation, they do not always fully represent the facts.
Alumni have been, and will continue to be, an important source of funding which enables MIT to remain the premier STEM university in the world. The MFSA believes that each alumnus/ae should continue to follow their own conscience in donating to MIT -- or not. The MFSA does not advocate for alumni to withhold donations to MIT. Given MIT’s funded research-based business model, MFSA does not believe that withholding donations is an effective means of influencing MIT’s direction.
The MFSA Concerned Donors Fund is intended for alumni who are concerned about the current direction of MIT, and who have not felt comfortable contributing to the Institute, but who still want to support MIT as the premier STEM educational institution. Donations to this fund are tax deductible and will be used for a variety of initiatives that advance the values of free speech and expression, viewpoint diversity and academic freedom at MIT. Giving to the Concerned Donors Fund is similar to making restricted donations to MIT, except the MIT administration will not oversee the disbursement of the donations.
The underlying objective of the MIT Free Speech Alliance is to maintain MIT as the preeminent STEM university in the world, in both its performance and its reputation.
Restoring a culture supporting free expression on campus is necessary for MIT to maintain its position as the best STEM university, and the MIT Free Speech Alliance is singularly committed to achieving that objective.
MFSA’s specific objective is for MIT to achieve a ranking in the top decile of colleges and attain a Green rating in the annual FIRE survey ranking of colleges. Another specific metric is for MIT to achieve an equivalent rating on free expression and academic freedom among MIT faculty, graduate students, and staff, as indicated in annual surveys.
MFSA advocates for strong support for free speech on the MIT campus for all members of the community. MFSA also monitors free speech issues on campus, and we will highlight, publicize, and publicly oppose incidents in which speech, viewpoints or academic privileges are being suppressed or compromised.
MFSA sponsors and supports programs to demonstrate respectful dialogs on campus, especially over controversial issues, through debates, presentations, and related activities.
MFSA publicly opposes administrative mechanisms at MIT that are used to suppress free speech and to intimidate the community to self-censor. Specifically, MFSA opposes the continued operation of procedures for anonymous reporting of pure speech as bias, harassment, and harm, along with the investigation and punishment of such speech. MFSA also opposes MIT’s use of mechanisms to compel certain speech and viewpoints, particularly mandatory DEI statements used as a political screen in graduate school admissions and faculty hiring.
As a matter of culture and values, MFSA believes that individuals engaging in discussions over differences in values, theories, opinions, and facts should always conduct themselves to attempt to illuminate and resolve those differences, if possible. Productive discussions are always conducted with the goal of bringing light, not heat, and in searching for the truth rather than the cheap win. Particularly at an institution dedicated to knowledge and learning, we believe that individuals should whenever possible engage in intellectual exchanges in a civil and respectful manner, without resorting to ad hominem attacks, misrepresentation, yelling or approaches that are not effective in changing other peoples’ minds. Better understanding among all participants in a discussion only comes about through a mutually respectful process.
MFSA holds that all disagreements over issues should be discussed openly and freely, in civil discourse, using logic and facts, whether the issues are around science or any other topic. MFSA also supports individuals’ rights to engage in various forms of protest and expression that are challenging, angry or offensive, as long as these don’t unreasonably interfere with the basic functions of the University or result in the heckler’s veto.
MFSA does not support administrative policing of civility. Robust discussion of difficult topics can be messy and cause hurt feelings or anger. Sometimes, such as when a serious harm has occurred, anger can be an appropriate response. Tone policing by administrations in the guise of creating civil discourse can often lead to, or serve as cover for, unacceptable forms of censorship.
MFSA neither promotes nor opposes DEI programs at MIT. MFSA does not advocate for a position or viewpoint on any controversial scientific, cultural, philosophical, religious, or political issues. It is the position of MFSA that all such issues should be open to civil debate and discourse which focuses on the underlying theory and evidence bearing on the issues.
The MFSA believes that the proper way to address information that you believe is wrong, positions that you believe are false or immoral, or people that you believe are behaving inappropriately is to confront and contest them in a civil manner. MFSA advocates for applying the principles of free speech to discussing free speech as well as to any other concept. People who oppose free speech should be able to argue and support their position, directly addressing the arguments of those who believe free speech is a primary value in our society and at MIT.
A dialog to confront and contest each other’s positions should be reasoned, based on facts and coherent theories. To the extent that one side’s arguments are based on misinformation, ad hominem attacks, and other logical fallacies, others should be free to expose and discredit them. The principles of free speech should also apply to debates over free speech.