Posters protesting problematic protection of free expression miss the point

Prohibiting speech because some may be offended is not only counter to freedom of expression but also to the cause of social justice

Apparently a very small number of advocates, upset with last year’s Report of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Freedom of Expression and the passage of the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom in December, put up posters on campus to protest what they saw was problematic protection of free expression. Their efforts were, no doubt, well-intentioned, but they were, shall we say, strategically questionable.

I am a long-time advocate of gay rights as well as an advocate of freedom of expression, and I was a member of the Ad Hoc Working Group. I wish to make several observations about these posters.

First, as a matter of campus policy and consistent with the MIT Statement allowing time, place, and manner restrictions, these flyers were posted in violation of MIT poster policy, which requires posters to “indicate a sponsoring organization and contact information.” In other words, contrary to what the flyers imply, unauthorized and anonymous flyers would not be “protected” expression.

Second, satire works only if you are in on the joke, and feedback I have heard is that there are members of the MIT LGBTQ community who missed the fine print and really felt this was hate speech directed toward them. This is unfortunate and tragically ironic.

Third, the poster quoting the Westboro Baptist Church provides us with a teachable moment. The WBC is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” They are so far out on the lunatic fringe that their efforts have been consistently counterproductive. Counter-protest numbers typically eclipse the small number of WBC protesters; the obnoxiousness of their positions and the strength of counter-speech they have evoked has often increased sympathy and support for gay rights. To be clear: I obviously disapprove of their message, but the use of their most infamous slur is closer to harassment, threat, and intimidation than it is “free speech.”

Prohibiting speech because some may be offended is not only counter to freedom of expression but also to the cause of social justice. This is precisely why so-called Hate Speech campus codes in the 1990s were abandoned or struck down, as they ended up being used against the very groups they were intended to benefit. As Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, and Howard Gillman, Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, noted with respect to the speech code adopted by the University of Michigan in 1988, “[in] practice, the code was used not against the kinds of purely hateful slurs that inspired its passage, but against people who expressed opinions that others objected to. Complaints were filed against a student who stated that Jewish people used the Holocaust to justify Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians [for example]” (Free Speech on Campus). These days, what counts as hate speech may depend on one’s religious and political views, and if we prohibit offensive speech then we no longer have freedom of expression since virtually any utterance about current controversies will offend someone. 

Fourth, another poster suggests the reader “Call [their] your legislator” to support anti-gay legislation. This has nothing to do with MIT policies, since everyone always has the right to express their political opinions privately. Nothing in the MIT report or statement has anything to say about what private citizens communicate to their elected officials.

Other posters I have seen, and I cannot claim to have seen them all, use insulting language and purport to support anti-gay policies. Some of these not only fail to identify the author clearly and legibly (which fails to follow MIT poster policy), they also fail to identify their intent as satire, meaning they are just plain insulting. They harm the very group that the posters are apparently interested in defending. There are far better ways to advance the cause of gay rights.

In the past few decades, gay rights in the US have made remarkable progress, moving from the Supreme Court’s awful decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) allowing states to criminalize homosexual sodomy, to decisions that recognize gays and lesbians as a constitutionally protected group (Romer v. Evans, 1996), directly overturning Bowers (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), ensuring a national right to same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015), and ensuring the legal right not to be discriminated against in employment decisions (Bostock v. Clayton County, 2020).

Gay rights would not be where we are today without freedom of expression, including the right to protest. Expression exercised in the street, in the media, and in the courts has resulted in great progress and changes in public opinion. Over the last 25 years, for example, support for same-sex marriage has risen from 27% to over 70%, according to Gallup survey data. As the MIT Statement notes, “Free expression is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of a diverse and inclusive community.” Freedom of expression, as history has proved, is an ally in the cause of gay rights, not its enemy.

Edward Schiappa is a professor of Comparative Media Studies/Writing at MIT, and holds the John E. Burchard Chair of Humanities.