Defending Free Speech at MIT

Who should be allowed to lecture in public forums? Rabbi Dovid Weiss and Imam Muhammad al-Asi spoke last Thursday at "Foreign Policy and Social Justice: A Jewish View, A Muslim View." Given that their opinions are so contentious, should the event's sponsors have hesitated before inviting them?

Rabbi Weiss, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect known as the Neturei Karta, believes that the State of Israel should not exist until the coming of the Messiah. Furthermore, he attended last December's Iranian conference on the Holocaust. Having returned, he has been forbidden from entering synagogues and denied service at kosher stores in Brooklyn.

Imam al-Asi has called for a "global Islamic movement," and has been intensely criticized for his militant posture against Zionism and Israel. Saudi Arabia and Egypt had al-Asi removed as Imam of the Washington Islamic Center, and he was denied a visa when he wished to travel to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage known as Hajj.

We should experience no difficulty in sponsoring lectures by individuals whose beliefs we find offensive. Such offensiveness does not necessarily depend on political affiliation: Weiss is at the far-left of the political spectrum, while al-Asi locates himself at the far-right. To classify any type of speech as "legitimate" while others are "illegitimate" is to suggest that statements of fact and statements of opinion can (and should) be evaluated by the same standards.

Some would object that we should not allow individuals to preach unvarnished 'hate' (if such a term can even be meaningfully defined), but one could well argue that they pose less of a danger than those who do so while masquerading as scholars. At least the former individuals make no pretense as to the objective validity of their claims.

We cannot claim to support free speech if we only invite individuals whose views fall within an acceptable continuum — that continuum, after all, is constructed by human beings who despite their best efforts will sometimes render fallacious judgments. We can only claim to defend free speech if we support it as vigorously for individuals whose views we support as we do for those whose positions we criticize.

Should one invite a racist to speak? What about individuals who lie?

Although it is understandable that certain organizations would not extend lecture invitations to individuals whose statements they believe to be socially unacceptable by the values of the times or factually incorrect, such individuals in fact play an indispensable role in our society.

Far more alarming than the promotion of incendiary hate speech or dishonesty is the prospect of students' becoming passive because of their belief that intellectuals should always be trusted. Falsehood is a far better lubricant for our mind's engines than truth, for it compels us to remain ever vigilant. It is preferable for our default response to intellectual output to be one of skepticism, rather than of acceptance.

There are fewer arguments in favor of freedom of speech that are more eloquent or compelling than John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. He was so convinced of its importance that he set forth the notion of "devil's advocates," whose sole role would be to contrive debate on issues, even those on which a consensus seemed intuitively obvious.

In keeping with Mill's spirit, MIT should grant the right of free speech to anyone who wishes to come to our campus. For if institutions of higher learning, as the ultimate centers of open discourse, fail to extend it to any and all, who can? More importantly, who will?

Ali Wyne is president and founder of the Forum on American Progress, a co-sponsor of last Thursday's forum.