April 2024Vol.XXXVI No. 4

A Letter to the Media and to Congress from MIT Faculty: How Fear Has Been Weaponized to Suppress Free Speech

Michel DeGraff, Tanalís Padilla,

On Monday, March 25th, an excerpt of the below letter was published in The New York Times Letters to the Editor section. We had to significantly edit it in order to meet their length requirements, so we wanted to share our full text with you, our colleagues, in order to continue the conversation around campus climate. We cannot stay silent in the face of calculated tactics designed to weaponize fear and intimidation. As civil rights organizer Marshall Ganz stated, “the only way to fight fear is with courage.” Thus, we find our courage together, as a group of concerned faculty, to speak plainly and clearly about the external political agendas that are harming our community.

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We represent a group of 32 MIT faculty from various disciplines. Today we write a public letter to set the record straight about what is happening on our campus. It is not the story that you have heard in national news and it is not the story that appears in the request for information that the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce made to our institution on March 8th.

First, let there be no doubt: hatred of all kinds is real and rising, including antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and more. All of these were pervasive in US academia well into the 1960s and they are surging again nationally. On our campus, we are committed to fighting the rise of hatred in all of its forms. 

Second, our students, staff, and faculty who are raising their collective voices to call for a ceasefire in Gaza face unsubstantiated accusations of antisemitism, even while 50% of US Jews currently support a ceasefire. Criticism of Israel’s government is repeatedly and erroneously conflated with antisemitism. MIT students, staff, and faculty who have spoken out publicly for Palestinian rights not only have been repeatedly doxxed, defamed, and threatened, but also have had to endure accusations of antisemitism weaponized against them to suppress their free speech.  Our students have been attacked as “pro-Hamas” and chased through the hallways for wearing a kaffiyeh or a hijab. Students who have engaged in peaceful and permitted protests for Palestine – several with family in Gaza City, Khan Younis, and Rafah – have been physically intimidated and defamed online. A Women and Gender Studies book club reading a well-known Palestinian woman activist’s memoir was held up as evidence of antisemitism on campus, ignoring the fact that the book actively promotes nonviolent resistance. Members of the MIT Jews for Ceasefire, a prominent campus group of Jewish students, staff, and faculty, have been harassed and isolated for advocating for a ceasefire. These actions and others suppress protected political speech in support of the rights, humanity, and dignity of the Palestinian people.

Third, the media portrayal of MIT has largely relied on a single narrative that ignores the rich diversity of the Jewish experience on the MIT campus. No one person or group can speak for the entirety – or even the majority – of MIT’s Jewish community. Such irresponsible and unbalanced coverage has further fueled the silencing and intimidation of our Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and allied communities. It has led to the cultivation of fear and isolation amongst Jewish members of the MIT community, whose families and friends have been misled to believe a skewed representation of MIT. Such narrow, one-sided understanding of the history and the lived experience of a whole community makes people feel unsafe on campus and creates a climate of fear and intimidation.

Our ask is simple. We cannot teach and learn and hold a fractured community together when Congress and the media are stoking partisan firestorms, so we ask these institutions to do their jobs so that we can do ours. Our job at MIT moving forward involves hard conversations, sitting with uncomfortable realities, and ensuring that we enable community exchange, reflection, and listening. We call on the media to return to journalistic norms of fairness and balance in reporting on college campuses; to stop the sensationalism; to avoid cherry-picking sources; to report in search of truth. We invite you to our campus to meet our students and join us in our university events and dialogues, to get your story right. We call on Congress to tamp down the election-year theater because it is harming our students and preventing our community from collectively navigating the grief and trauma of this present moment. We invite you to remember that you were elected to uphold our freedoms as guaranteed in the Constitution: freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and, most notably, freedom of speech – no exceptions.