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Opinion | Canceled by M.I.T.: The Professor’s Talk

To the Editor:

I suspect that I’m not the only Times reader who found it unsettling to learn that M.I.T. had canceled the lecture of a distinguished professor because some faculty members and students had sought to disinvite him solely on the basis of his political views (“Science, Ideology and Politics Jostle in the Halls of Academia,” front page, Oct. 21).

A few years ago the acclaimed author Salman Rushdie said: “The university is the place where young people should be challenged every day, where everything they know should be put into question, so that they can think and learn and grow up. And the idea that they should be protected from ideas that they might not like is the opposite of what a university should be.”

Mr. Rushdie delivered these remarks in 2015, when he received The Chicago Tribune’s Literary Award. He eloquently spoke against the trend on college campuses to censor disagreeable speakers, a trend that has only intensified in recent years. Mr. Rushdie spoke against those who would use threats, intimidation and even violence to silence the voice of others whose viewpoints might differ from their own. It was an impassioned rebuke of anyone who would dare attempt to limit the free speech of others.

A university is a place where minds should be opened, not closed; where perspectives should be broadened, not narrowed; where biases should be challenged, not confirmed. It would appear that many of our universities are failing at this critically important role.

Michael J. DiStefano
Jamestown, R.I.

To the Editor:

By canceling a scientific presentation by the geophysicist Dorian Abbot, Prof. Robert van der Hilst has abdicated his responsibility as chair of the earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences department. Just because many objected to Dr. Abbot’s views about affirmative action policies does not mean that Dr. van der Hilst has the right to deprive M.I.T. of scientific knowledge and expertise.

Scientific lectures and colloquia are designed to stimulate scientific inquiry and collaboration, provide opportunities and contacts for grad students and postdoctoral fellows, and inspire students to pursue scientific careers. Dr. van der Hilst has managed to throw red meat to the reactionary right wing, curtail academic discussion, tarnish the reputation of M.I.T. and shortchange the students and faculty he is supposed to serve.

Bernice Buresh
Cambridge, Mass.

To the Editor:

Once M.I.T. starts choosing speakers based on their public stances, it becomes responsible for every stance of every speaker it does invite. Isn’t that a bigger risk for M.I.T. than a stance-neutral policy?

Ilya Shlyakhter
Belmont, Mass.
The writer was an undergraduate and graduate student at M.I.T.

To the Editor:

Re “Songs That Inspire Us to Fight On,” by Tom Morello (Opinion, Oct. 21):

Mr. Morello’s piece about union songs brought tears to my eyes and a memory of growing up on the left-wing Upper West Side of Manhattan in the McCarthy era.

One day I met my father at the elevator on the 12th floor of the Ansonia with a paper bag in my hand. He asked me what I’d bought at the record store, and I pulled out an album of Pete Seeger union songs.

With a frightened look on his face he quickly demanded that I put the album back in the bag before anyone saw it. He was terrified that we would get in trouble and be accused of promoting Communism!

Today we are again fighting the threat of fascism that Joe McCarthy represented and perhaps witnessing a resurgence of the union movement. I welcome the latter as a correction for the loss of the middle class ushered in by Ronald Reagan.

This time, though, no one should be frightened to sing “Joe Hill,” as I was when growing up.

Nancy Weisman
Sandy Springs, Ga.

To the Editor:

Many thanks to Tom Morello for reminding us about the “Wobblies” and their importance in the formative years of the union and protest movements.

As music counselor at a summer camp in the Berkshires, I gleefully sang and taught young campers many of the songs cited by Mr. Morello. Not only did those songs provide the soundtrack of our summers, they also became important to the moral, ethical and political development of all those campers who, now as adults, are probably still singing those same songs.

But where are the new songs that could help unite us in these times of divisiveness?

David Namerow
Longboat Key, Fla.

To the Editor:

Re “Bannon Found in Contempt of Congress” (front page, Oct. 22):

There may come a time to prosecute Stephen Bannon for contempt of Congress — but now is not that time. Instead, a grand jury sitting in the District of Columbia should subpoena him for his testimony about the insurrection, because that is the surest way to obtain it.

While a criminal contempt prosecution might lead to a jail sentence eventually, it will not force his testimony anytime soon and instead will give him the right to assert the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying. But the failure to respond to a grand jury subpoena leads directly to coercive civil contempt where a district court could order him to jail immediately until he testifies. In a jail cell Mr. Bannon would be forced to contemplate his choices much sooner.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has the best tool — the grand jury — to obtain his testimony, and it is well past time for it to use it.

Nancy Luque
Washington
The writer is a lawyer.

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