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Limits of Speech

Thouis Jones

Recent events have led me to wonder exactly where the boundaries of safe discourse lie in the MIT community regarding racism. The Institute’s willingness to bring a formal complaint against the authors of the “ghetto party” e-mail obviously indicates the e-mail was close enough to the line to warrant close scrutiny, at least according to the administration.

I’ll be conservative and cross “making fun of negative racist stereotypes” off the list of acceptable behaviors. Did Margaret Cho break this rule? Does that mean I can’t show an episode of “The Simpsons” to some friends? Can I tack a copy of Boondocks to my door? Is a more serious discussion of racist stereotyping off-limits, as well? Do we accord more or less weight to levity in discussions of race?

What about political discussions? Am I allowed to stump for Buchanan? What about putting up a David Duke poster? Is a black student allowed to wear a “Farrakhan for President” shirt? Are we allowed to argue about reparations for slavery, for or against? What about the costs and benefits of affirmative action in college admissions?

How about academic discussion? Can we talk about racism and its social perception in classes? Are students allowed to analyze the data given in The Bell Curve? Will they be docked points if they fail to show its statistical invalidity, or will they be sent before the Committee on Discipline?

Can we form student groups others might find offensive? There’s a Black Students’ Union. Would forming a White Students’ Union be allowed? If black students protested outside the WSU’s offices, could a complaint be filed against them? What if white students were to protest in front of the BSU’s offices?

Is it really the case that there exists a double standard with regards to racism and who can say what at MIT? I could easily believe it. Of course, it would be nice if someone in the administration would let us know. We could all get a list during Orientation of “Things you can’t say if you’re white/ black/ asian/ Jewish/ male/ female/etc.” It would clear things up quite a bit. Surely the “ghetto party” e-mail wouldn’t have been sent if such a list existed.

Of course, no administrator is willing to go out on that very shaky limb. Drawing a “bright line” wouldn’t cover all the cases they would like to, and would allow loopholes they’d rather close. Regardless of the inability to delineate every case, it’s an inherently untenable position to draw the line at all, particularly at a place where academic freedom is supposed to be fundamental. Yet, the administration’s actions certainly seem to indicate that there are unwritten rules, and that they include a double standard.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing that anyone should do the more offensive things above, or that if someone did, that they shouldn’t experience the social disgrace that would result. But I do believe that the administration’s willingness to intervene in situations like this is wrong-headed. The result will be for those formerly willing to think about and discuss racism openly to become less willing to do so. People will be more careful in what they say, but out of fear of saying something that will get them in trouble, rather than of an understanding of why some things are hurtful to others. This will lead to fewer opportunities to convince people that racial stereotypes are wrong, rather than just unacceptable to express.

There is sometimes a need for the administration to step in and limit speech; for example, instances of harassment and discrimination in hiring need to be dealt with, both from a moral and legal standpoint. But the e-mail that led to the questions above was not harassment, except under MIT’s extremely vague and overly broad definition, which could include even the most innocuous items above. The e-mail that started all this wasn’t even particularly offensive in context, given the level of discourse usually seen on the lists to which it was sent. It neither warrants nor needs an official response from a disciplinary committee. The student response was more effective at convincing the senders of the e-mail that they erred than any official response could ever be.

Either our community is strong enough to police itself against transgressions of this sort, or it is no community at all. If the only way we can deal with those that express ideas offensive to us is to cry “harassment!,” we’ve failed as an educational community. Open discussion of dangerous ideas implies a certain level of risk of receiving offense. We should be willing to take that risk, and when we are offended, respond in a way that strengthens the community, rather than divides it further.

Thouis Jones is a graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.