The recent postering campaign, prominent in the building where the Concourse program is located and highlighted in a front-page Tech photograph last week, is deeply troubling. This campaign, which targets those who removed murals and graffiti at Burton-Conner which were inconsistent with the Title IX prohibition against sexually harassing environments, is fueled by a knee-jerk outrage that fails to understand how problematic the murals and graffiti were under Title IX. The effect has been to undermine the free speech the campaign purports to honor by fostering an environment in which open discussion of the grounds for covering over the mural is inhibited.
Two issues are preoccupying a small but vocal group of students. First, they claim that MIT does not consistently enforce the requirements of Title IX and its own Mind and Hand Book and that it unfairly targeted Burton-Conner for violating them. Second, they claim that these requirements of the law, however inconsistently applied, violate free speech. These two issues are unrelated and must be discussed and addressed separately.
If, on the one hand, students are concerned that MIT is not enforcing Title IX and its own policies equitably, they should press the administration to do so. The Burton-Conner housemasters are responsible for ensuring a welcoming and non-harassing environment only within Burton-Conner, not campus-wide. If, on the other hand, these students are concerned that Title IX is misguided in its requirements, this is a separate issue altogether. The question of the basis of and limits to the American principle of free speech is undoubtedly important, even essential, for any serious citizen. But it is well settled that free speech must be balanced against other concerns, and, at least with respect to the murals and graffiti at Burton-Conner, Title IX has supplied an answer, which is the appropriate business of every political community. A university education is absolutely the opportunity to think through the proper meaning and scope of principles like free speech, and we encourage students to seek out some of the excellent humanities and social science classes on campus where they are explored. Students should take advantage of these opportunities to hone their understandings, and even to get involved in politics if they ultimately believe our current answers to policy questions need to be revised.
At Burton-Conner, a small fee may now be incurred for painting one’s interior dorm room ($40 or $50 to cover the cost of repainting the room when the student leaves, if the student fails to repaint it himself or herself). The claim of at least one student that this fee will stifle residents’ creativity is hard to take seriously — especially since MIT owns the dorm rooms and, as landlord, could prohibit painting the walls altogether. If students leave MIT with the lesson that it is unnecessary to assume some responsibility for one’s creative or other expression, they will have failed to learn a crucial lesson about what it means to live as a responsible adult in a free society.
There are plenty of opportunities on campus to express one’s ideas and, even better, plenty of places on campus to learn to refine those ideas so that their expression is clear, meaningful, and rigorous. The one certain way to stifle genuine discourse and reflection is to target those who uphold federal laws and MIT codes with a campaign of intimidation. If there is one example in this whole episode of intellectual dogmatism and bullying, that is it.
Lee David Perlman is a Senior Lecturer and is writing on behalf of the Concourse Program staff.