November/December 2021Vol. XXXIV No. 2

Improving MIT’s Written Commitment to Freedom of Expression

Alex Byrne, Bernhardt Trout

There is no single place in MIT’s official documentation where the Institute’s commitment to free expression on campus for all community members is clearly and prominently set out. Policies & Procedures has some scattered remarks in Section 4.1.1 and in the preamble to Section 9.0. President Reif noted in a recent letter to the MIT community that “freedom of expression is a fundamental value of the Institute.”

In our view, this omission needs rectifying. And that can easily be done by MIT’s joining 82 universities and colleges in adopting the Chicago Principles on freedom of expression, as articulated in a 2014 University of Chicago report. The Principles are entirely consonant with Policies & Procedures and statements from the upper administration.

To that end, we have set up a website,, which contains the Chicago Principles (adapted for MIT only by removing the Chicago-specific references and replacing them with MIT-specific references), along with links to resources on academic freedom and free expression, and a petition to urge adoption. Faculty members can add their names to the petition by emailing

The petition is intended in a constructive spirit. Adopting the Principles would be no panacea and would not absolve us from confronting difficult and at times distressing issues about freedom of speech. But it would be a positive step, signaling that MIT community members are encouraged to speak their minds and that disagreement with others is a path to learning. The MIT community is much more than – to borrow a phrase from Tocqueville – “a flock of timid and industrious animals.” We are certainly industrious beavers, but we are also bold thinkers who cherish a multiplicity of perspectives. Emphasizing that the Institute prizes vigorous debate and discussion can only promote its mission to “advance knowledge.”