When Free Speech Could Be Defended in The New York Times

In 2017, an eloquent op-ed in The New York Times defended free speech by objecting to the students at Middlebury College who violently canceled a speech by Charles Murray. Would The New York Times run such an op-ed today?

(p. 9) The talk that the political scientist Charles Murray attempted to deliver last month at Middlebury College in Vermont must have been quite provocative — perhaps even offensive or an instance of hate speech. How else to explain the vehement opposition to it?

. . .

Some of the protesters became unruly and physically violent, forcing Mr. Murray to flee..

. . .

. . . Mr. Murray’s speech was neither offensive nor even particularly conservative.

. . .

Of course, many of the protesters may have been offended by Mr. Murray’s other scholarship, in particular his controversial 1994 book, “The Bell Curve,” written with the Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, which examined intelligence, social class and race in America. Or rather, they may have been offended, as many people have been, by what they assume “The Bell Curve” says; only a small fraction of the people who have opinions about that book have actually read it. (Indeed, some people protesting Mr. Murray openly acknowledged not having read any of his work.)

“The Bell Curve” has generated an enormous literature of scholarly response and rebuttal, a process that is still underway. Many scholars have deemed the book’s most provocative argument — that differences in average I.Q. scores among races may have genetic as well as environmental causes — to be flawed and racist. Some have judged it to be judicious and reasoned, if still controversial. But its academic critics have nonetheless treated it not as hate speech to be censored but as a data-based argument with which they must engage in order to disagree.

This is not how the Middlebury protesters treated Mr. Murray’s talk, and that is an intellectual disappointment. It is incumbent on each of us, in the spirit of free inquiry, to make a decision for ourselves — after actually reading a book or listening to a speaker — about how the views in question hold up to critical scrutiny. It is also incumbent upon colleges to offer protesters meaningful opportunities to share alternative views.

Not everyone deserves to get to speak at a college campus. But those like Mr. Murray who use reasoned, evidence-based approaches to investigate matters of scholarly concern shouldn’t be forcibly silenced after they have been invited to do so.

For the full commentary, see:

Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci. “Charles Murray’s ‘Provocative’ Talk.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, April 16, 2017): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2017, and has the same title as the print version.)

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