Institute should be fighting against censorship, not furthering it
"If there is one thing that symbolizes the value of the university, it is the idea of the forum -- a place where any idea can be discussed, where truth is not an ideology, where reasoned debate and impassioned discourse are cherished."
These words were spoken by the civil libertarian President Paul E. Gray '54 at the past commencement exercises, yet MIT continues with its many policies to control free expression. While this same speech was going on, students were not allowed to give out leaflets that might have given parents an unacceptable perception of MIT.
Several weeks ago I learned for the first time, despite claims that there have been public discussions, that there was a proposal for a new Institute policy on pornography ["Revised porn policy on table," Oct. 31]. My first reaction was to try to get a copy of this policy. That turned out not to be so easy. I went to Associate Provost S. Jay Keyser with a polite request, but he flatly refused to give me a copy -- of this public policy. It is strange that he refused to give me the policy and now claims that he wants input from students, faculty, and staff. Maybe he only wants input from those who agree with him.
Another example of this information control involves an ad placed by Planned Parenthood in the MIT telephone directory ["Planned Parenthood ad modified in directories," Oct. 31]. They offer an important service that will no longer be advertised for the MIT community. The manager of the (misnamed) Communications Office, Mark Wilson, served to stop communication by removing the words "abortion" and "birth control" from the ad -- emasculating it to read simply "Planned Parenthood -- specialists in woman's health." Wilson claims that "People know what Planned Parenthood does anyway." If that were the criteria for censoring advertisements, then there would be virtually no ads. It is extremely sad that MIT would force Planned Parenthood to put their money into other forms of open communication, rather than allowing these important ads to run intact.
MIT has a history of censorship. There is a policy of keeping the press out of Committee on Discipline hearings allegedly to protect the privacy of the accused students. At my November 1987 hearing before the COD, I waived my privacy right, yet they still would not allow the press in. This was clearly not to protect me, but to keep any information damning to MIT from the public.
There is a discussion going on now about how to limit communication by posters. Most of the discussion centers on other forums that can be used, but they miss the point. Most other forums are already available, and any new censorship of posters would simply add a limitation to the primary method used for certain types of information exchange. A new policy would also be selectively enforced, as the last time that I have heard of the use of the old policy was in a threat against me, by Associate Dean James R. Tewhey, for putting up Registration Day film posters.
Finally there is the proposed Policy on Pornography, whose sole purpose is censorship. The new policy admits that pornography is difficult to define, and therefore it is defined subjectively, in the only way possible. Even the Supreme Court has said that, "The line between ideas and mere entertainment is much too elusive for this court," yet the Faculty Policy Committee feels that it can do better than the court. Under the new proposal, the COD and Office of the Dean for Student Affairs have the power to decide what films are covered by the pornography ban. At least under the old policy the decision about whether a film could be controlled fell to a Pornography Censorship board made up of students and faculty in an alleged attempt to keep things impartial, as though this was possible. The new policy gives this power solely to the COD and the ODSA.
The proposed policy, Faculty Chair Henry D. Jacoby claims, is an attempt to deal with the COD ruling in my case that the present policy constitutes, "an excessive restraint on freedom of expression ... [and] is therefore inappropriate for MIT." The new policy is in fact even more restrictive. At least the past policy allowed films to be shown, if they passed through certain procedures. The new policy simply stops all films that the ODSA deems unacceptable (except if they show them). This is clearly a more "excessive restraint."
The power of censorship over "bad," "unacceptable," or "dangerous" ideas by those in control is so dangerous, and yet so tempting, that the First Amendment was written explicitly to protect against it. Massachusetts passed a civil rights law to make these protections even stronger. The best, although the most difficult, answer to unpopular ideas is clearly education about other ideas, especially at a university. More members of the administration should read the Constitution, and even the words of President Gray. It is easy to speak of the dangers of censorship in Tiananmen Square, but for his words to ring true Gray must avoid censorship in his own backyard. The administration must understand that censorship is growing on campuses and that they should be in the forefront fighting this dangerous trend, not leading it.
Adam Dershowitz G->