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Speech Taboos, Right and Left

By Wendy Kaminer

        Not surprisingly, right and left wing partisans share a penchant for censorship: each side has a de facto list of taboo subjects and ideas, discussions of which expose people to formal and informal punishments.  Consider these two cases:

        On the right: The Texas Education Agency’s director of science, Christine Castillo Comer, was forced to resign last month because she forwarded an email from the National Center for Science Education about a talk on evolution and creationism. 
Merely passing on a message about a lecture by an opponent of creationism was considered “misconduct and insubordination” by education agency officials.  Ms. Comer tried to keep her job by sending out a quick retraction, asking recipients of her offending email to disregard it; still; she was given the choice of resigning or being fired.

        On the left: Nobel laureate James Watson was recently forced to resign from his post as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island because of a stupid remark about race (he claimed that Africans have lower I.Q’s.)  In the wake of Watson’s resignation, Slate writer William Saletan was attacked for a column suggesting that theories about racial differences in intelligence might be sound. 
Saletan issued a subsequent apology for not properly vetting one of his sources that purportedly showed evidence of genetic I.Q. differences.

        Obviously the James Watson and Christine Castillo Comer cases are most analogous; both Watson and Comer were forced to resign because they expressed, or merely referenced, taboo ideas, although Comer’s dismissal for forwarding an email may also be illegal:  She was fired by a state agency, which is subject to the First Amendment.  There doesn’t seem to be any question that she was forced out because of the content of her speech; education agency officials reportedly claimed that by forwarding a message about a talk by a creationism opponent, she was violating a (questionable) mandate to remain neutral on the subject of evolution and creationism.  But it’s doubtful that officials would have reacted similarly had Comer forwarded a message about a talk by a creationism proponent.

        Obviously, the controversy over Saletan’s article is more complicated: columnists should expect and even welcome criticism of their work.  If the attacks on Saletan convinced him that his examination of the race/I.Q controversy was flawed, then they reflect the virtues of free speech and the marketplace of ideas.   But Saletan’s apology (as described in the New York Times) might make you wonder if he was also intimidated by the furious reaction his article evoked:  “ ‘I did not mean to start a wildfire,’ he told the Times, which reported that Saletan added that “a subject as sensitive and complicated deserves to have a higher level of proof and that “he erred in treating it like any other topic.”

        He concedes too much.  Why shouldn’t all serious topics be treated alike?  When journalists agree to approach some subjects less directly and more tentatively than others, their self-censorship offers tacit agreement that the subjects are taboo.   People tend to be most timid in discussing race and religion  -- but to what end?  Considering the racial and religious demagoguery that continue to thrive, it’s hard to say that timidity does much good.


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