Survey: Many MIT Faculty Fear Speaking Freely While Students Support Barring Speakers with Opposing Views

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.

110 thoughts on “Survey: Many MIT Faculty Fear Speaking Freely While Students Support Barring Speakers with Opposing Views”

  1. Jonathan: Your column has prompted some rather bizarre comments by some of your followers. “Diogenes” responded to my comment (2/5 at 12:54 pm) with his own comment (2/5 at 12:54 pm) showing he has no understanding of constitutional law. In my comment I pointed out that free speech is under attack in public schools in Florida under Gov. DeSantis. Diogenes objected to my statement and erroneously claimed “free speech is a right for and about ADULTS only. What is taught to MINORS is a matter of parental concern and NOT a free speech right”. I tried to respond to Diogenes directly but he has apparently blocked any responses. Probably for good reason.

    Perhaps you should point out to Diogenes that in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) the Supreme Court ruled that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”. I am sure you know the facts of the case. One of the plaintiffs in the case was 13 yr. old Mary Beth Tinker who was among students who planned to wear black armbands at school to protest the Vietnam war. The students were warned that if they went ahead with their protest they would be suspended. Some students went ahead and were suspended. Parents of the kids sued–lost at trial and eventually appealed to the SC that ruled even 13 yrs old’s have the right to free speech.

    I mention this because it appears at least one of your followers is still living in the 19th century when children were considered mere chattel. Diogenes is not the only one on this blog who lacks any basic understanding of constitutional law. Now I know you probably don’t have the time to read the posts on this blog so I am using this opportunity to point out to Diogenes the obvious. If he is paying attention he should know the students in public schools in Florida have all the protections of the Constitution and they have a perfect right to protest Gov. DeSantis’ draconian policies and laws. And I hope they continue to do so!

    1. Students themselves do not shed their Constitutional rights, and may discuss among themselves anything they like; however, as minors they are a “protected class.” That makes it perfectly legal, proper, and Constitutionally MANDATORY to bar activists from grooming, indoctrinating, sexualizing, or imposing any other sorts of harmful impressions upon them in government funded schools. That is all PERFECTLY LEGAL and proper under Constitutional law.

      Cry harder.

      1. JonathanGalt: Some days I feel I am surrounded by idiots. Other days when I get on this blog I realize it’s not just some days. You are as delusional as Diogenes. There is nothing in the US Constitution “that makes it perfectly legal, proper, and Constitutionally MANDATORY to bar activists from grooming, indoctrinating, sexualizing or imposing any other sorts of harmful impressions upon them in government funded schools”. You may believe all this nonsense but what is your evidence school teachers are doing any of this in classrooms? If a teacher presents books or other material on LGBTQ+ subjects or the contribution of African-Americans, both in literature, the sciences and elsewhere, how could this possibly be construed as “grooming, indoctrinating, sexualizing”? You may think it does but that doesn’t make it true.

        But FL Gov. DeSantis agrees with you and pushed through a law that makes it a felony for teachers in K-3 to discuss any of these subjects. In Duval County, FL 176 books on LGBTQ+ and racial subjects have been banned. If you think that’s a good idea then you support state censorship and control of speech–something specifically barred under the 1st Amendment.

        There may be a practical reason why kids might benefit from classroom discussion of the above subjects. By the time kids are 5 or 6 they have already been exposed to sexual content–on TV and on the internet. They already know there are LGBTQ+ people–they might even have a family member who is gay or lesbian or trans. They also have friends or school mates who are Black. Issues of racial come up in school. When kids enter school they are not a tabla raza–a clean slate. So what school teachers try to do is present books and other material might might illuminate these topics for their students. If a gay teacher presents material on gay themes does this mean he is trying to “groom” or “indoctrinate” kids to also be gay? If you do believe this nonsense you are as delusional as Gov. DeSantis!

        1. You are correct.

          Public education is not part of the constitution.
          It is arguably unconstitutional.

          What is the evidence ?

          Many of those engaged in this nonsense are not merely admitting to doing so – but doing so flagrantly.

          You are concurrently arguing – you have no proof, as well as Its OK.

          Schools that can not manage to graduate students that can read, write and do basic arithmatic,
          need not waste time on the sexual preferences of a tiny portion of the population.

          Few have any problem presenting american history – warts and all.
          That is not the same as teaching that white people are inferior, or that the entire sweep of history is towards patriarchy and white supremacy. In FACT the opposite is true.

          Slavery was not created by White people, But it was Ended first by White people. It was also ended in most of the world by white people.

          The entire concept that all people are equal is the produce of the Scottish Enlightenment.
          Even today most of the non-white world is both deeply racist and patriarchal.

  2. Exactly why I left that place. It was Liberalville on the daily, and common sense things like gun ownership were looked down upon.

  3. Liberal education is dead and so-called institutions of higher learning aren’t. Let start over and put these educrats on a real job schedule, have real accountability like making them amenable to law suits when they teach worthless pablum and then compelling alternate view points in the classroom like a “Fairness Doctrine.” It’s time we took on these Maoists on their own terms.

  4. The censor mob must be resisted at all costs. The mob cannot defend itself by rational apology. It shelters its inadequacies within the umbrella of rage and hate that will tolerate neither Truth or dissent. Mobs do not abide civil discourse so they must not be tolerated. They should be locked out and the voices of reason, or perhaps even irrationality, must be given a protected venue to speak without threats and intimidation. Regardless, never yield to the demands of the mob. Speak out because the consequences of being silenced by them are far worse for our nation than any individual’s loss for refusing to be silenced. Welcome to the domestic warfare to preserve our freedoms.

Leave a Reply