Opinion guest column

Problematic Postering: Why You Need to Care About Policies, Practices, and People

Between a right to free expression and a right to be free of discrimination, what value prevails? At MIT, the answer seems to be free expression.

I said it. Wondering if you heard me correctly? Well, let me confirm for you — I said it.

On February 23, 2023 and April 19, 2023, Vice Chancellor and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson wrote to the community about problematic postering and chalking found around campus. The provocative messages featured distasteful, disgusting portrayals of a wide range of sociopolitical issues, such as the right of  LGBTQ+ individuals to adopt children, MIT’s involvement in feeding radioactive oatmeal to children with disabilities who were in state care, sexual assault and harassment rates on campus, MIT faculty and staff having sex with students, and more. I was a member of a postering campaign responsible for these messages. My article will answer a simple, yet complex, question: Why?

As I wrote in an op-ed in The Tech on November 9, 2022, free expression does not come freely. Someone has to pay a price. The campaign team of which I was a member was composed of marginalized students heated and passionate about the pattern at MIT, and in the broader society, of our communities paying the highest price for others’ free expression. Let me provide some examples. In my first-year spring, a professor asked if I was in the United States legally after I mentioned that I was born in Mexico. When I jokingly called a friend in a friend group a straggot (a queer term referring a straight person), a stranger to the group asked why he couldn’t say faggot if I was allowed to say straggot . When I needed to receive a monkeypox vaccine this past summer, my nurse made AIDS jokes in the hallway before commenting that she was fed up with having to treat gay prostitutes — and no, I’m not a prostitute for the record.

Are these examples of free expression or examples of discrimination? When there is a conflict — and there will be one eventually — between a right to free expression and a right to be free of discrimination, what value prevails? At MIT, the answer seems to be free expression. 

This answer did not sit right with the postering campaign team, who felt that the MIT Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression (FEWG)’s report and faculty-approved statement failed to wrestle with students’ concerns about discrimination, bias, and harassment. Where can, and should, the line between free expression and other moral values and legal obligations be drawn? This was the guiding question for the campaign.

While the FEWG’s statement makes clear that “MIT does not protect direct threats, harassment, plagiarism, or other speech that falls outside the boundaries of the First Amendment,” it is the belief of the postering campaign that the MIT community is not aware that is must support the legal right of such expression since it falls within the First Amendment (i.e., does not violate Institute policy). While community members certainly do not have to agree with the content of a poster, they must, under MIT’s policy, agree with the legal right for such expression to be heard. 

For example, some posters featured speech from Snyder v. Phelps, which upheld speech from the Westboro Baptist Church, featuring slogans such as “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, and “Same-Sex Parents Doom Kids” — slogans that are within the First Amendment, slogans that are allowed by MIT. Now, as a queer person, do I support the content of these messages? Heck no. No matter how “offensive or injurious”, words from the FEWG’s statement, this speech may be, they are nevertheless allowed at MIT (and yes, this is the same FEWG that only had faculty as members yet seek to influence what free expression should look like for the entire MIT community). 

President Kornbluth can preach all day about the “distinction between what we can say to each other — in other words, what we have a right to say — and what we should say to each other”, but her opinion has no bearing on the question of: can, not should, I poster harmful speech? President Kornbluth’s answer? Yes. You have a legal right to poster harmful speech — go wild. Why? MIT’s policies protect such speech. In fact, when an MIT administrator violated Institute policy by taking down a poster in February, they were warned that “per MIT’s Office of the General Council, it is recommended that community members refrain from taking down the posters in question as to do so may be in violation of MIT postering guidelines.”

The postering campaign curated intentionally provocative postering that complied with all content-neutral policies, contrary to allegations from Professor Edward Schiappa that such posters were not signed. To be signed a poster must contain three elements: sponsoring party, contact information, and date of postering. Since there are no requirements for the size of the font, or even language saying such signing must be obvious, the posters were signed in small font (e.g., size 3). Furthermore, the postering campaign noted, and documented, several instances of only its posters being taken down while other posters that were not signed were allowed to stay up. This unequal enforcement of signing policies demonstrates viewpoint discrimination: “Hey, President Kornbluth, isn’t this what you’ve made the MIT community work so hard to prevent?” This situation poses the question of what weight does, or can, Institute policy carry if MIT is unwilling to honor its promises or policies whether one agrees or disagrees with said policy. 

The campaign sought to test the limit between free expression and other competing values and obligations, such as discrimination and harassment. I want to emphasize that Institute policies hold an incredible amount of power. For example, the Mind & Hand book, which has a free expression policy protecting the postering campaign, prevents me from facing disciplinary charges no matter how offensive my actions by postering were. This should be upsetting. I was told by a member of MIT’s Bias Response Team that the postering campaign solicited the most amount of Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) reports, yet I was not summoned once by IDHR yet alone disciplined for my actions. Why? Because the postering campaign broke no policies. MIT allows the speech in the postering campaign. Again, if you are upset at the postering campaign, I would encourage you to ask: should good policy, good law, allow the speech of the postering campaign to occur? That is a question for you to answer, and I hope you do since the FEWG has already assumed the answer on your behalf: yes.

I want to be clear that the MIT administration knew about my involvement in the postering campaign since February 2023 but could do little, nay nothing, to discipline me because they are the ones to allow the postering campaign in the first place. If you are interested in learning more about how the postering campaign advocated to senior leadership I encourage to explore these slides and one-pager of recommendations that were presented to Chancellor Melissa Nobles, Provost Cyntheia Barnhart, Chair of the Faculty Lily Tsai, Vice Chancellor and Dean of Student Life Suzy Nelson, Dean David Randall, and several faculty members of the FEWG. I am on the record as being an early opponent of the FEWG’s statement and report, which dismissed the undue burden free expression often places on marginalized communities — the point the postering campaign intended to convey. I want an MIT that can and will protect me as a minority student, but I can assure you that is not the MIT of today nor of the near future unless the MIT administration is willing to recognize their misstep in failing to wrestle with the reality that free expression rights have a steep cost for marginalized communities.

I also want to address a few counterarguments that I have heard during the postering campaign. 

First, why poster during CPW? If MIT wants to stand by its free expression policies, then it should do so at all times, including, or perhaps especially, when dinner guests are over. People who are considering whether or not to call MIT home for the next four years deserve to know exactly the type of campus MIT can foster. If the MIT administration believes admitted students should not be exposed to what the Institute’s free expression policies allow, then they ought to change those policies. The MIT administration must decide what is more important, free expression or MIT’s public perception and ability to yield members of the admitted class. The winning answer seems to be free expression because, even though she may not agree with the content of the posters, at no time did President Kornbluth negate the legality of the posters. Seriously, look back at previous communications from President Kornbluth — are there any mentions of the posters violating MIT policy? The answer is no. Why? The posters are allowed under MIT’s free expression policies, and the posters only follow what MIT’s policies allow. 

Second, why were only certain identity groups targeted? The members of the postering campaign limited its content to our communities. For example, I would make a poster about Latinx issues, since I am Latinx, but I would not be comfortable making content about other racial or ethnic groups that I do not belong to — this was a personal decision, not a legal one. The shock value of the posters is not lost when limiting myself to groups I am deeply familiar with. 

Third, why use harmful speech if that is the very thing you are protesting? The postering campaign is exposing a flaw with the way this campus deals with this free expression by creating a simulated experience. We personally do not agree with the content on the posters, but with the rise of radicalization of certain groups, it is a real possibility that there will come a time when people post such content sincerely (I have certainly seen such statements growing up in the Deep South). We hope the MIT administration will recognize the impact of this policy as this campaign serves as a case study. If the MIT administration chooses to prioritize the mental health of marginalized groups, it will take concrete measures to prevent and address hateful postering via policy change. Until such a policy change is made, MIT is signaling that free expression is more important than students’ mental health in moments of peril. Additionally, I can testify that much of the content featured in the posters is influenced by the lived experiences of members of the postering campaign. No one today supports conversion therapy right? Nope, try again. As a queer child growing up in Louisiana, my first experience with mental health services was my conversion therapist. I made posters about conversion therapy to demonstrate that this is a real conversation and ongoing debate that LGBTQ+ people will have to wrestle with, and if you are LGBTQ+ and have not had to wrestle with this issue, consider yourself lucky. 

Fourth, why continue postering? We want change. If you are upset with continued postering, then be upset with the MIT administration, for they are the ones to legally support our ability to poster.

My decision to participate in the postering campaign was not one made lightly. I decided to join in the effort because I wanted, and still want, an MIT that supports students on the margin. When I opened Canva to make posters quoting pro-conversion therapy arguments, I was reminded of my time in the Texas conversion therapy center that my father sent me to. But whatever discomfort I felt, I knew it was also important to show that policy needs to change. While I know that President Kornbluth probably has not had to deal with homophobia in her life, I have and probably will for the rest of my life. I want the MIT administration to know the tax they impose on marginalized communities. 

I sacrificed a lot for the postering campaign, including being doxxed: my right to privacy was violated with my name and living space shared publicly, including on a Twitter thread that at the time had nearly 250,000 views. Additionally, I have had to endure harassment from the MIT community, ranging from unsolicited knocks on my door, to receiving fraudulent emails in my name and falling victim to food tampering. The harassment was so severe, persistent, and pervasive that the MIT administration had to move me out of East Campus to a safe living space (imagine the Witness Protection Program — that’s my new life). Despite all these injuries, however, my zealous advocacy to use activist methods to press some of the most challenging free expression dilemmas remains intact. 

As a personal reflection, in participating in this postering campaign, I realized there is an issue beyond that of free expression: MIT’s honoring of its own policies. Time and time again, I reported instances of MIT violating its own policies, violating students’ rights. For example, despite the Mind & Hand Book explicitly saying that “It is not appropriate to remove or deface the poster,” community members, including MIT administrators, violated this principle. While I can agree with the intention behind why someone might want to remove the poster, I do not believe the solution is to break a policy — an offense that the postering campaign has not committed. Removed from the topic of free expression, what right, if any, can be secure if MIT does not honor its commits of what rights community members have. 

If MIT doesn’t honor its free expression obligations, how can I be sure MIT will fulfill its anti-discrimination or anti-sexual assault obligations? It is scary to me that an Institute can pick and choose what rights to recognize and can recognize rights only when it is convenient. The practice of MIT administration desecrating student rights — the rights embedded in the contract made via via the Mind & Hand Book — should cause alarm to anyone who cares about individual rights. While I protest the free expression policy, I recognize that whatever is written as policy is the law of the land — this is why I seek to see a change in policy. It is concerning that MIT is so wishy-washy with its policies. If MIT allows for free expression in policy to differ from free expression in practice, how can I be sure that when, for example, I am being harassed MIT will honor its anti-harassment policies? MIT policy should match MIT practices. 

I understand that not everyone will agree with the message or method of the postering campaign, and I accept this fact and respect it. Despite the controversy behind the postering campaign, I remain supportive of its intentions: (1) awareness of what MIT’s free expression allows and will protect and (2) demonstrate that the MIT community is not willing to accept the postering campaign on its legal merits, despite its compliance with Institute policies. 

Put simply, MIT needs to rework its policies.  My aim now is to provide my story, which before this moment, has not been made public. I urge you to evaluate my arguments, agree or disagree, and let this movement contribute to our collective understanding of why policies, practices, and people are critical in shaping the MIT you want to see. I hope this moment of care towards free expression does not escape us.

David Spicer is a fourth-year undergraduate majoring in political science, and is a member of the MIT Pre-Law Society.