Back in 2010, Mark Blaxill and I were invited to talk about our book at the Brown University bookstore. It was a good event. A few days later, a student named David Sheffield wrote a column for The Brown Daily Herald that said:
“While Brown should welcome a broad range of viewpoints, we should not allow ourselves to be used as a soapbox for whomever would like to come speak. There is a point at which the damage done by hosting a speaker outweighs the benefits.
“Last Friday, the Brown Bookstore hosted Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill, the authors of ‘The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic,’ for ‘a reading and [discussion] of their research.” Research is a highly generous word to use to describe what the authors have done. Essentially, they repackaged the last decade’s worth of claims that mercury causes autism, disregarding the actual research that shows those claims to be utterly false. Study after study has shown that autism is not caused by mercury in vaccines.’”
Ergo, we shouldn’t have been allowed to speak. Now – and it’s hard not to feel a bit of schadenfreude over it – Brown is mired in a much broader, but not much different, debate over free speech. Many Brown students, it seems, are against it when it doesn’t suit their purposes. In a long and thoughtful piece on the Daily Beast – “Brown University Professor Denounces ‘McCarthy’ Witch Hunts” – the threat to free expression becomes clear.
Outrage over minority oppression has morphed into the idea that certain kinds of speech are unwelcome on campus. She quotes an anonymous professor:
“More disconcerting than the nature and tone of recent protests to this professor is the lack of concern over freedom of speech—or what he referred to as ‘freedom of expression’—on campus.
“‘’Freedom of speech’ is a little tough,’ he said. ‘It’s not the perfect phrase to use, partly because we’re a private institution and we’re not talking about government action. I like to use ‘freedom of expression.’ Universities are supposed to be places of freedom of expression."
It’s worth reading the whole piece -- “I think freedom of speech in general has a lot of problems because of power dynamics, just racially and otherwise, so you have to be cautious,” sophomore Sierra Edd said” -- to get the flavor of what’s going on. It appears that students there, and across the country, are both both infantilizing themselves – help protect us from upsetting words! – and becoming the arbiters of the parameters of acceptable speech.
I’m not passing judgment on the validity of their substantive concerns – although the stifling of a discussion of Halloween costumes at Yale, my alma meter, was both spooky and goofy. Rather, it’s worth seeing how little value seems to be placed on free speech and free expression these days, especially by younger people. Did they miss Civics? Have helicopter parents made them feel like the center of the universe? Are they vaccine damaged?
It’s a topic we’re all familiar with from the vaccines and autism debate, which vaccine injury deniers have been trying to shut down any way they can. As I’ve said, the premise that ideas are too dangerous to discuss has no place in a democracy.
Yet the online site Jurist, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, last month argued exactly that. In an article “Legally Limiting Lies About Vaccines,” the authors – both law professors – asked: “Can messengers of openly false statements that contravene the public's health be stopped?
The article offers all kinds of remedies such as this: “For example, if governmental health officials publicize false statements linking child vaccines and autism, they could lawfully be censored or fired from their positions. They have no constitutional right to spread false statements antithetical to the mission of their agency or office.”
So censor or fire them – and, the article suggest, sue politicians if they suggest vaccines cause autism, just as the beef industry sued Oprah (note to Jurist: she won).
This all came together in one lovely package recently. AOA reader Judy Ritchie sent me a piece from the Concord Monitor that began: “NHTI professor Nathan Strong knew that inviting a prominent opponent of vaccination to speak to a class about the science of vaccines would be a little controversial.
“That turned out to be a good prediction, as long as ‘a little’ is translated as ‘very.’ Maybe even ‘very, very.’
“’I was not expecting the reaction,’ admitted Strong, who has taught in the biology department at NHTI for 21 years, including a stint as department head.
Strong had invited Laura Condon of the NVIC to talk about vaccine safety issues. In the article, everyone was backpedaling as fast as possible.
“Strong wrote in a letter to critics, not because he wanted to present some sort of balance to the issue of vaccination – he realizes there’s no debate about the incredible value that society receives from inoculation programs – but ‘so the class had the opportunity to hear all the false arguments . . . and be able to recognize them as such.
And the writer of the article, Dave Brooks, felt compelled to pledge allegiance to the flag of vaccines:
“The historical and scientific evidence is clear that widespread vaccination programs are one of the great accomplishments of humanity, eliminating more suffering than almost anything we’ve ever done. Opposing vaccines and government inoculation mandates is like opposing societal programs to provide clean drinking water.” He ended with: “I’m off to get my flu shot.”
Commenters included the Dorit Reiss Amen Chorus: “Exactly. By inviting someone like Ms. Condon, which advocates against protecting children from diseases by constant use of misinformation, Prof. Strong allowed her to claim legitimacy she does not deserve. Even if none of the students are misled by her – and that cannot be guaranteed, however thoughtful and careful they are: anyone can be misled – others may see it as acknowledging that her point of view is legitimate. But a point of view that relies solely on misinformation is not legitimate. And a point of view that puts children at risk because of misinformation is dangerous.
Ms. Condon has many forums in which to promote her false claims. A university class should not be one of them.”
Exactly wrong, Ms. Reiss: A university should be a forum for free speech. Vaccine safety, it turns out, is just another unpopular idea that the First Amendment deniers want to shout down.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.