Avoiding a Rush to Judgement: Implications of the Star Simpson Affair

Remarks Delivered to Faculty Meeting
19 December 2007

Kenneth R. Manning

When I first heard about the Star Simpson incident on CNN, I was in an airport on my way back to Boston. “Fool,” “idiot,” “loony-tune,” “tech terrorist,” the passengers around me muttered. This rush to judgment seemed itself foolish. And then, within minutes, across the airwaves came MIT's statement calling Star's behavior “reckless,” preceded by the unfortunate phrase “As reported to us by the authorities.” The mood around me turned uglier; some chimed in “repeating the opinion of talking heads on CNN” that Star should thank her lucky stars that the authorities hadn't shot her dead on the spot, the implication being that they would have been justified in doing so.

Right from the beginning, the public saw Star as reckless in part because MIT had said so. Take the son of a friend of mine, who had just finished U-Mass-Amherst: Star, he said, must be “reckless” as this was MIT's considered judgment. I think I showed him the logical fallacy here, but realized there was little, if anything, I could do about what the larger public might conclude.

I was relieved, then, to see MIT students responding quickly, without rehearsal or preparation, within a day or so. Their letters to the Tech were thoughtful and impressive, going straight to the heart of the matter–constitutional rights and due process in the face of a near-hysterical public. These students were not prejudging the case, nor were they asking MIT to defend Star; they were simply asking MIT to remain silent and to refrain from characterizing actions under criminal investigation.

I waited several weeks for some kind of public response from faculty, but few came. What came was a kind of circling-the-wagons by the administration. The administration's response, several weeks later, was to defend its reaction and choice of wording at the time as appropriate, stating that it had no regrets and would respond exactly the same way again if faced with a similar situation.

I felt that the students who had written so passionately, eloquently, and reasonably about the issue in the Tech deserved better than this. They had raised legitimate points not only about alternative practical ways to handle such matters, but also about how our responses can reflect on or even undermine our deepest values as a community. And the response that came from the administration did not appear to match the students' level of concern for either due process or community values.

Professor Winston and I then decided to frame the issues for the MIT community as a whole. To that end, we presented our resolution at the last faculty meeting as new business. Then, in order to stimulate further reflection and broad debate, we tabled the motion rather than call for a vote. Since then, our effort to engage further debate at today's faculty meeting has met with ongoing resistance, along with pressure to drop the matter and to let sleeping dogs lie. But we feel that faculty voice and governance at MIT are too essential for us to yield to such pressures. We remain confident that open debate and discussion, on this and other issues, will make our community stronger.

The purpose of the resolution is to express to the administration a sense of the faculty in light of a past administrative action. The resolution is an attempt neither to write nor to make policy. Its wording clearly indicates this, in the use of words like “refrain from” and “request.” The language is deliberately moderate and tempered, in marked contrast with the heat (but not much light) that prompted us to draft it.

Our motion is about the basic civil right, as derived from constitutional rights, of due process. And a broader question is: should MIT protect the civil rights of its members even if its own popular image may be at risk, even if restraint may be required in responding to inquiries from the press? We think so. The fact is that any MIT statement about one of its members, especially a student, carries significant weight in the eyes of the public. The question that the court very likely will be deciding in the Star Simpson case is precisely whether or not her actions were “reckless.” MIT's statement that these actions were indeed “reckless” may influence or prejudice this decision.

Our resolution, in short, proposes that MIT exercise reasonable sensitivity and responsibility when it comes to an individual's constitutional protections. I urge you to vote its acceptance.

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