Proposal for revised statement on freedom of expression and academic expression released

The Working Group on Free Expression recommends that MIT strengthen its commitments to freedom of expression and academic freedom

The Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression has proposed a statement of principle on freedom of expression and academic expression; the statement was released to the MIT community Sept. 1.

The statement notes that “free expression is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a diverse and inclusive community.” It points out that MIT “does not protect direct threats, harassment, plagiarism, or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment” and that “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.” The statement also says that “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.”

The formation of the working group was catalyzed by issues surrounding the 2021 Carlson Lecture. The group was charged to address several questions — whether MIT needed to update or revise its statements on academic freedom, freedom of expression, and/or pluralism; how those principles should be defined; how such statements could be given prominence in policies and the life of the institute; and what the processes for negotiating disagreements related to these issues was.

Along with the proposed statement, the working group released a report summarizing the process of developing the statement draft.

Key to the report are the recommendations of the working group, which call on MIT to strengthen its commitments to freedom of expression and academic freedom. 

As a specific example, the group recommends avoiding use of the terms “offensive” and “offense” in MIT’s Mind & Hand Book section II [9], which includes the phrases “freedom from unreasonable and disruptive offense is essential to the university’s mission”; “people who are offended by matters of speech or expression should consider speaking up promptly”; and that “people who have offended others by their manner of expression should consider immediately stopping the offense and apologizing,” to name a few. The group proposes that “offense” be replaced with “conduct.”

The report also recommends that all Institute faculty affirm and celebrate the Institute’s commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom, with suggestions including organizing series of lunches for community members to practice discussing hard issues; and dedicating (on a trial basis) Constitution Day (Sept. 17) to celebrating a controversial or historical episode relating to free expression.

According to the report, rescinding an invitation to deliver protected speech, “as defined and explained in this report,” conflicts with freedom of expression.

In addition to the recommendations, the report underscores the distinction between freedom of expression and academic freedom; it also states that while the group was commissioned in response to the Carlson Lecture, it was not charged with assessing that case in particular.

The report establishes legal background, saying that MIT is not bound by the First Amendment as a private institution; however, the report says, as a matter of institutional policy, MIT can and should assure members of the community that they have similar protection as students in state universities (which are bound by the First Amendment). 

The report also reflects on the efforts on college campuses in the 1990s to forbid hate speech, and concludes that the category of hate speech “has been considered so subjective and hard to define that campus speech codes have been consistently ruled legally unenforceable.” As a result, the report writes, most institutions have shifted focus to “conduct-based regulations.”

The working group seeks to create a statement endorsed by the faculty; to that end, two online forums will be hosted on Sept. 8 and Sept. 22 for faculty to share their thoughts. Those who can’t attend the forums are asked to share their thoughts at

The MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA), a group of almost 900 MIT alumni and community members that formed in Fall 2021, wrote in a Sept. 6 press release that it “applauds the MIT administration” for creating the report. The MFSA press release writes that the proposed statement on free speech is similar to the Chicago Principles of the University of Chicago. The press release also expresses “concerns about MIT Administration’s commitment to putting the” report “into practice,” prompting the MFSA to work on an “in-depth response” to the report, “with particular attention to its recommendations.”