More than one year after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled a speech by a prominent scientist over his political views, faculty members have endorsed a pledge to protect free speech at the university.
At an MIT faculty meeting in late December, attendees voted to adopt a statement of principles that promise broad protection for students and scholars who express controversial opinions. “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 statement said. “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.”
“It looks like a good statement,” said University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot, the scientist at the center of the controversy. “The challenge is always enforcement, but it looks promising.”
The MIT faculty statement comes in response to a firestorm of criticism over the October 2021 cancellation of a public lecture by Abbot about the search for life on other planets. Apart from his scientific research, Abbot has written controversial articles claiming that programs aimed at increasing racial diversity on campus can lead to unfair outcomes for white and Asian students.
Even though Abbot’s lecture was only about his scientific work, critics of his political views denounced MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences for inviting him to lecture. The department responded by canceling the lecture. This sparked yet another uproar, with about 70 MIT faculty members signing a letter saying that the cancellation “casts a shadow on MIT’s commitment to free and open speech, to the diversity of viewpoints and to tolerance.”
The controversy went national, with conservative media personalities such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News rallying to Abbot’s defense. The James Madison Program in the Department of Politics at Princeton University agreed to host the speech via teleconference, and several thousand viewers tuned in.
Robert George, director of the Madison Program, praised the faculty statement on free expression. “As I read the statement, it would prevent something like the Dorian Abbot incident from happening again,“ he said.
MIT joins a host of colleges and universities that have adopted formal policies vowing to protect the free speech rights of students and faculty. In 2015 the University of Chicago, where Abbot teaches, issued a statement of principles on free expression which has been adopted by over 80 US universities, including Purdue, Princeton, Columbia, and Georgetown. Other schools, like MIT, have drafted their own free speech policies.
“I’m glad some good came out of it,” George said. “I think MIT should send an award or a gift to Dorian Abbot to thank him.”