Opinion guest column

Freedom of expression for all, minus students

Like an Epstein thank you letter, I regret that the Freedom of Expression report bears my name as the undergraduate partner

Last fall, President Reif charged the provost, chancellor, and chair of the faculty to examine the state of freedom of expression on campus “on behalf of the community.” The process that led to the Freedom of Expression statement and report grossly failed President Reif’s call to “ensure that different points of view … are allowed to be heard and debated on our campus” — words he wrote in his letter introducing the statement and report to the MIT community. The last time I checked, students are a core part of “our campus.” Where are the students in the creation of the Freedom of Expression statement and report?

The composition of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression should upset students. First, the committee included just two students, one undergraduate student — me — and one graduate student. These students were not “members” of the committee. Instead, students were relegated to the subordinate position of “partner” and did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as actual members. Delegating students to a lower class via a partner designation and faculty and administration to a higher class via a member designation violates the opportunity for students’ “points of view … to be heard and debated on our campus.” As a so-called partner, I was given a less than 24-hour notice of the statement and report going public, which diminished any opportunity to meaningfully have the student point of view “heard and debated.” Manufacturing who wields power and who holds a megaphone contaminates and voids any outputs of this group. Are students being asked to accept the results of an illegitimate working group? I hope not.

Are students to believe that this group speaks of freedom of expression when this very group’s foundation is void of freedom of expression in its committee composition? No. If a working group does not allow freedom of expression in its composition, are students to believe any outputs of such a group are fair or legitimate? No.

Like President Reif after signing an Epstein thank you letter, I too regret that the Freedom of Expression report bears my name as an undergraduate partner. As a partner, I was directed to not engage students and to synthesize only limited undergraduate sentiments drawn from the Carlson Lecture. As an undergraduate partner to the working group and as the Undergraduate Association (UA) President, I believe that the absence of fair, meaningful inclusion of students in the creation of the report precludes any student agreeance to the statement and report that is supposedly “on behalf of the community.” I worry that my myopic inclusion as the undergraduate partner allows the working group to wrongly benefit from the UA’s credibility amongst undergraduates and to advertise student buy-in when in fact students were deprived of meaningful engagement and representation. I voice my stark dissent. There cannot be a Freedom of Expression statement and report without freedom of expression. Freedom of expression must include having students at parity with other community members.

Setting aside my procedural grievances, I am worried about the content of the Freedom of Expression report.

First, the Freedom of Expression report fails to properly consider, let alone assign weight to, the many places speech can occur. Should speech look different in an academic versus residential setting, considering the primary purposes of such places differ? Residential settings serve as students’ ultimate retreat. Unlike speech in the classroom or on the campus grounds where students can stay or exit as they see fit, speech in residential settings inherently has a captive audience. I would not expect it to be acceptable to barge into President Reif’s Gray House anytime I wish to voice my speech, nor should students be expected to have their homes violated in the same manner. More work and discussion is imperative to understand the implications of free speech in different scenarios, taking into account the time, place, and manner of the speech.

Second, the Freedom of Expression report fails to safeguard students against the harms of power differentials. The report believes “empowering our students to be confident advocates who refuse to be silenced” is the appropriate response to speech that chills or silences the voices of marginalized minority groups. I will offer one personal example to illustrate my argument. In spring 2022, I took a required Course 17 class where my teaching assistant said hurtful things to my classmates and me. For example, when I spoke about my queer identity, said TA berated me, asking,“What makes you a minority?” Never in my Latinx, immigrant, genderqueer, gay, disabled, low-income life would I imagine having to defend myself against such an invalidating question. I did not feel comfortable with the remarks of this TA, so I reported the behavior to my professor and department chair and filed a report through the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office (IDHR). The result? My department chair never followed up on the matter. My professor leaked the contents of my email to the TA without my consent. IDHR told me they could not take action on the case. As a student, I could not continue with the class. What protections would I, as a student, have in a scenario like this? Is this the new hallmark of a MIT education?

Real or not, I had a sincerely held perception that I was not and could not be treated fairly in this class. I use this example to show that this Freedom of Expression report would allow my TA to say such harmful comments and to create a hostile academic environment and fails to protect a student like me from the harms of power differentials. While I would like to consider myself an okay exemplar of a “confident advocate,” I did not achieve an acceptable outcome to my situation. I can only imagine how students without my level of comfort in advocating for myself would fare in such a situation. A belief that students should simply advocate in the face of such situations negligently fails to wrestle with the unsettling realities behind power differentials. Such a belief fails students.

Third, the Freedom of Expression report is too long. How accessible is a 56-page report? Really? While tremendous opportunities have been provided to faculty to engage with the report, I have not seen the same opportunities afforded to students. I find this worrisome since sections of the report that are potentially highly impactful to students are buried to a point where they fail to rise to the surface for discussion and debate. Once again, I see an instance where students are not being meaningfully engaged.

“To give free expression prominence not only in our policies but also in the life of the Institute means making it an integral part of our educational mission.” This line in the report signals an intent to spread the ideas of the Freedom of Expression report all throughout the Institute. Such an intent should be worrisome for students because of the procedural and content grievances that I have outlined. To students, let me be clear: be aware, be alarmed, and be resistant to a statement that does not and cannot speak “on behalf of the community” without us. A community without students is not the MIT community.

David Spicer is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Department of Political Science. He serves as President of the Undergraduate Association and was the sole undergraduate partner to the Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression.