There is a fascinating and chilling survey on the state of free speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The newly released Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) survey shows a growing fear among faculty over their ability to speak freely in classes or other forums on campus. Conversely, a majority of students believe that it is acceptable to shout down or block speakers who hold opposing views. The survey captures the downstream impact of students who have been taught in their primary, middle, and high school educations that speech is harmful and preventing free speech is a noble and necessary action.
A recently discussed poll showed roughly 60 percent of students say that they fear speaking openly in class. That percentage is consistent with other polls taken across the country. The MIT polling shows that many faculty feel the same way and that the perceived intolerance on campus has increased dramatically in the last few years.
MIT is a microcosm of these concerns and underlying confusion over free speech and academic freedom protections. We have been following the struggle at the university after the outrageous decision to cancel a lecture by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot in 2021. It was a disgraceful decision that tarnished the reputation of MIT as an institution of higher learning. Yet, no one was punished or reprimanded for the action.
MIT recently seemed to redeem itself to some degree with a powerful statement in support of free speech. However, many faculty and students are clearly not convinced.
The survey found that roughly 25 percent of faculty reported they are “very” or “extremely” likely to self-censor. Forty percent of faculty are “more” or “much more” likely to self-censor on campus now than in 2020. It further found that 32 percent of students and 41 percent of faculty “agree that the administration’s stance on free speech is not clear.”
There should never be any such widespread doubt on the position of free speech on a campus. It should be clear and unambiguous. However, almost half of the faculty are unsure. The reason is obvious after the Abbot disaster. The university leadership is clearly not viewed as a reliable ally in free speech fights. It is one thing to mouth free speech values. It is entirely a different thing to stand by a faculty member’s free speech and academic freedom rights when a flash mob forms around a cancel campaign.
Only 14 percent of MIT faculty believe that it is “extremely likely” or “very likely” that the university would stand by a faculty member in a controversy over controversial speech. That is an indictment of the entire university administration and the university board. What is notable with this data is that only a small percentage (if any) of faculty self-identify as Republican or conservative. Yet, a significant percentage still fear speaking openly in their own classes or on campuses.
Yet, what is most striking is the attitude of the students who have been taught for years that free speech is harmful. Seventy-seven percent of students believe that it is acceptable to shout down speakers with opposing views to prevent others from hearing them. Another 52% believe it is acceptable to physically block access to such events or speakers. That is the result of the new orthodoxy taught in our school system where free speech is viewed as harmful.
Cancel campaigns are now a common pattern in schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown. Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech. Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned).
This dangerous trend in academia is discussed in my law review article, Jonathan Turley, “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States”, Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.
We have seen how this can turn into a type of “heckler’s veto” where speeches are cancelled in advance or terminated suddenly due to the disruption of protesters. The issue is not engaging in protests against such speakers, but to enter events for the purpose of preventing others from hearing such speakers. Universities create forums for the discussion of a diversity of opinions. Entering a classroom or event to prevent others from speaking is barring free speech. I would feel the same way about preventing such people from protesting outside such events. However, the concern is not with outdoor events where all groups can be as loud and cantankerous as their voices will bear. Both sides have free speech rights to express. The issue on campus is the entrance into halls, or classrooms to prevent others from hearing speakers or opposing viewpoints by disputing events.
This has been an issue of contention with some academics who believe that free speech includes the right to silence others. Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over the use of a heckler’s veto on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU official. Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.
The two sides of the FIRE survey on faculty and student views are clearly and dangerously related. Faculty are engaging in greater self-censorship as students become more emboldened in seeking to silence those with opposing views. At the same time, as students assert the right to shutdown events and speakers, the Administration is seen as, at most, a pedestrian or, at worst, an enabler of the cancel culture.
The MIT survey shows that we are raising the most speech-intolerant generation in our history with students taught for years that speech is harmful and must be controlled, censored, or confined. It is not enough to protest, it is a license to silence speakers and to prevent access to events or lectures. It is the face of the new American orthodoxy that has taken hold of our institutions of high education.