Opinion letter to the editor

Censorship and the Carlson Lecture from an alum’s perspective

To the editor,

I am saddened but not surprised to read about the cancellation of the Carlson Lecture of Professor Abbot, as well as by the response of some members of the community. When I was an MIT student, I challenged an MIT censorship policy by showing a film, following it with an open discussion. The response of the administration was to bring me up on charges in front of the Committee on Discipline (COD). The COD ultimately dismissed the charges and ruled that the policy constituted “an excessive restraint on freedom of expression at MIT.” But the policy remained in effect for several years, with continued threats of enforcement and later with modifications. At the time, I hoped and thought that I could increase awareness of the importance of free speech at a university. It seems that over the years, censorship has only gotten worse. One of the attorneys who represented me at the time went on to found the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in 1999. He recently told me that he originally expected that it would only be around for 10 years as censorship at universities was so absurd, but, unfortunately, FIRE is still going strong!

Even the arguments have not changed. It seems that everyone claims to support free speech, and then some people want to add exceptions for their own discomforts. I suggest that it is precisely the disagreeable words that need protection! I think we all agree that members of the MIT community should have our ideas challenged. That must include being able to express unpopular or distasteful ideas, and yes, these can make people feel uncomfortable or hurt. The retraction of the invitation to deliver the Carlson Lecture was clearly meant as a punishment for the views that he expressed.

The events around the invited Carlson Lecture and views of Professor Abbot demonstrate how censoring speech can result in an increase in publicity for hurtful views. Instead of having productive dialogue about climate science, the field in which Professor Abbot is well respected, or about diversity, where his views are more controversial, the decision to censor has resulted in conversations about when and how someone at an academic institution is permitted to present. President Reif recently sent a letter to the community in which he stated, “Freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the Institute.” I strongly agree. Yet I’m not convinced, after all this time, that things will change. But I do hope that MIT can someday become a place that celebrates freedom of speech, and will never again take away the right to speak due to someone’s unpopular, distasteful, or even incorrect views.

It is sad that we are still having this conversation after so long. This act of censorship provides an opportunity for the MIT community to stand up for academic freedom going forward and to try to prevent this from happening in the future. I previously wrote in The Tech, “The administration must understand that censorship is growing on campuses and that they should be in the forefront fighting this dangerous trend, not leading it.” I hope that it will not take another 30 years for MIT to accept that mantle.

Adam Dershowitz, BS ’89, MS ’91, PhD ’98