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On the Limits of "Free Speech" -- Variations Over Time

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In a previous column, I discussed the appearance of the self-styled "scientific racist" Charles Murray at Middlebury College, VT, the content of his earlier, widely publicized work, The Bell Curve, the student response to his appearance that kept him from speaking, and the issues concerning the matter of "free speech" raised by the whole episode. The bulk of the column was devoted to an abridgment (long enough in its own right!) of Appendix VI to my book The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2002: A Futuristic Novel, which used the extensive academic literature that took apart the Murray hypothesis many years ago.

At the end of that column , I dealt with the issue of "free speech," in the context of what happened to Murray at Middlebury. I said:

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"But what about 'free speech,' then? An editorial on The New York Times on the subject was entitled 'Smothering Speech at Middlebury.' Oh really? Supposing that Murray was a well-known anti-Semite (and given Breitbart, etc., in certain circles anti-Semitism is being given a certain buffing. Further, anti-Semitic violence is now occurring on a regular basis, certainly without any national outrage greeting it). If he had indeed been invited (which he almost certainly wouldn't have been because although old-fashioned racism is OK for discussion in certain 'liberal' circles, like the one inhabited by the President of Middlebury, one Laurie Patton) anti-Semitism almost certainly would not be. But wouldn't that be 'silencing free speech?'

"And then what about what happened to Milo Yiannopoulos at the recentannual Conservative Political Action Conference? At CPAC, for years, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and etc. have all been OK, indeed promoted by some attendees and speakers. Yiannopoulos, a gay man himself, has been particularly big on the first two. But when it came out that he had in the past condoned pederasty and spoke positively of sexual experiences he had with Roman Catholic priests while growing up, well, that earned him a dis-invitation. Of course, rightists like Bill Kristol and the Fox 'News' Channel's (or should I say the Republican Party Propaganda Channel's) Brit Hume went absolutely nuts about what happened to Murray at Middlebury. Somehow, they failed to notice that CPAC did the same thing to Yiannopoulos. But 'limiting free speech' is really all relative, as this whole episode shows.

"Racism was not OK at Middlebury. Pederasty was not OK at CPAC. So far, anti- Semitism would be not OK at either. But if students 'smother free speech' over racism, why is not CPAC's action 'smothering free speech' as well? And since in certain quarters Breitbart is considered to be anti-Semitic, when will the prevention of anti-Semitic speeches at universities and similar venues be considered 'smothering of free speech' too? One does not have to go back to the McCarthy Era to realize that 'free speech' is indeed a relative term, whether a majority of U.S. like to think of it that way or not."

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Following publication of the column, I had a lengthy private exchange on the matters of "free speech," "liberty" and their limitations (or not), between me and my dear friend and long-time colleague Dr. Don Ardell, widely known as "The Dean of Wellness." He and I have much in common: professional work and writing in the Wellness arena (Don much more than I -- he was the first to broadly develop the whole concept, beginning in the 1970s), triathlon racing (Don has won many age-group World and National championships; I have finished many races); politics; a life-long interest in and promotion of atheism. We disagree on few matters, but this one of them. With Don's permission, the balance of this column is devoted to a presentation of excerpts of our discussion on the matter.

Don began:

"I believe speech in a public forum should be 'free,' in the sense that any point of view, particularly a 'scholarly' (or pseudo-scholarly) argument/theory/etc., should be allowed, tolerated and/or otherwise made accessible to those who wish to avail themselves of the pros and cons of a subject -- regardless of who might choose to be offended by one unpopular side of it, however much it seems racist, prejudicial, cruel, hateful, etc. Even arguments the majority finds horrific should be tolerated, not necessarily respectfully, but tolerated for an agreed upon period of time under academic conditions wherein 'the correct' or several varied/different perspectives are available as counter-views.

"The liberal arts student at Middlebury College acted as we would expect fascists to act, obstructing free speech. Sure, conservatives, Right Wing folks are fascist in fact, not just in an isolated case, but this does not justify in my view failing to set the liberal democratic model on their own turf.

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"In my view, no topic or point of view should be forbidden. If you oppose blasphemy, then you have to oppose speech codes."

To which I responded:

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a "Trusted Author," he is a Senior Editor, (more...)

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