freespeechYou would think that it is a simple enough concept, but a whole lotta people seem pretty confused about it when you get right down to it.

We live in a country that guarantees us the right to say what we wish.

Except that there are limits.

The most famous of which is “you don’t have the freedom to yell fire in a crowded theater”–unless of course the theater is actually on fire.

You can’t go around trying to encourage people to riot either.

People on the Right think that if you are denied a creche in a public place that that is somehow a denial of their freedom of speech and/or religion, which it definitely is not.

There is such a thing as appropriate venue. It’s probably not a good idea to set up an outdoor symposium about the benefits and joys of orgies next door to an elementary school.

But this is really not so much about what is free speech as it is about venue.

A day or so ago, I learned that my Alma mater, MSU was hosting  a “Creationist Forum” of some sort, put on by some bunch of loons who believe in that stuff. I fired off an angry letter stating my objections and got the obligatory form letter the next day, reminding me that a “public” institution has an obligation to provide a venue for “ideas” whether we like them or not.

Well it’s not like I expected anything else.

But it did get me to thinking. While it’s always easy to hide behind the “Black rule” –“I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it”, it fails as a critical argument of just when a university is properly within its rights legally and ethically to grant or deny access to its campus for ideas that are distasteful to rational beings.

So I propose to set out at least some standards here by which we might intelligently discuss the issue. There is no particular order.

1. Is it a proposed scientific claim or wholly an opinion? While being the latter is not always disqualifying, I think opinions need not be provided a forum in most cases. You are entitled to yours, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthy of my spending money to insure that you can pontificate. There are exceptions and we will discuss them later.

Assuming we say yes, it is a proposed scientific claim then the following analysis suggests itself. We can start with evolution versus creationism since that is what opened this issue in the first place.

One can argue successfully I think that creationism is not any sort of science at all. It is in reality a rather strange concoction that arises not out of any particular desire by its adherents that it be true on the merits. Let me explain. Those people who believe in creationism and espouse it, are folks that have chosen to designate a book, the bible, as some inerrant creation by God, fashioned by human hands, but containing nothing God does not want out of it and everything He does want in it. It is purposefully designed to be readable by the average person without training or guidance. It is meant to be taken quite literally as the words themselves are commonly understood by the reader.

This of course all works out magnificently for the holder of said belief, since an entire world view is thus created about all manner of things in life, to suit one’s own interpretation of what words and sentences mean, and if pressed that one’s beliefs about say slavery or homosexuality, or women’s role in society is questioned, one need only point out that it is God’s opinion and they are simply in obedience. In other words, the bible can be used as a defense to charges of racism, homophobia, plain old greed and stingyness. Creationism only becomes important because if they give in on this then they may have to admit that they really are racists, homophobes and a whole host of unsavory characteristics they can now foist onto the shoulders of a God who “must have a good reason” for that.

Such self-serving beliefs of course need not be given any credence at all. Similarly those hangers on who “preach” and write books, and create homeschooling curricula, create therapies to “cure” the biblically ill, and so forth join these true believers.

Quite simply, their theories are entitled to no weight because they have everything to gain and everything to lose in holding their “belief”.

2. If there is actual “scientific” inquiry into this belief, who is paying the bills? This is clear of course in some manner as to “evolutionary” research that is funded by religious organizations, but is more clear in the area of climate change.

It is now apparent that some 97% of the scientific community world-wide (whose business it is to understand the subject) are agreed that the climate is warming and that it is doing so at an alarming rate AND that human beings are largely responsible for this surge. These 97% are employed in divergent locations, and under many different auspices, but many are university professors who are doing pure research.

If you follow the money as to the deniers, you find that they are all pretty much being paid by fossil fuel companies. They are being paid to find that the real science is faulty and that it is therefore a good idea to continue to spare no expense environmentally to locate and retrieve the oil and natural gas where ever it may be found.

Again, there is little reason to given them a hearing when they patently have a desired outcome.

3. Is there a general consensus in the scientific community? We do well to remember that many abrupt and shocking turn arounds in science start from one person who has a completely unorthodox explanation of the same events as is the norm. Therefore, that alone is not a disqualifier. What it then requires is a fair examination of the new theory, and its supporting documentation. We are aware that there are probably difficulties getting funding when you are going against the grain, and there is probably difficulty in getting published if your ideas are  inopposite as well, but truth does win out and if you have the facts, people start to listen.

It seems to me that where there is a general scientific consensus, and where the opposing “science” has been examined and found lacking, no university should feel the least obligated to provide a venue for strange and bizarre ideas that are clearly self-serving and are merely trying to “dress” themselves in scientific jargon. Groups who promote creationism, denial of climate change, and so forth should not be granted university services to promote their voodoo.

This is not a denial of freedom of speech. Said groups are free to rent halls anywhere and from anyone who wishes to make a buck and then spout their nonsense to willing fellow-travelers. But a university should not lend its prestige and imprimatur to wacky flat-earthers and gravity deniers in the name of providing an open forum for the exchange of “ideas”. These are not ideas, but self-serving clap trap.


4. Opinions. Here I speak of ethical issues arising from philosophic concerns. At one time, slavery was accepted throughout the world. Yet someone certainly sought to examine the issue for the first time. Absent, (at that time) any scientific evidence, it became a philosophic discussion on the nature of humanity. Something quite similar might be said about “woman’s place” at some long ago time. While these were more opinions than scientific inquiry, they deserve, it seems to me, consideration by being given a forum even when they suggest a quite radical change in thinking.

One might argue that this opens the door to the KKK being given a meeting hall on campus, or other hateful groups whose agenda is to place blame and/or punishment on this or that group.

I think that is rather easily addressed by a simple question–is the new radical idea one that is inclusive, welcoming to more people, fair, equality driven, broadening in its scope of who or what is acceptable? This errs on the right side I think rather than opinions that would give rise to exclusiveness, sexism, racism, or other limiting factors.

Surely there will be issues that run a fine line. I understand that some seek to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley’s commencement because of his remarks about Muslims. I’m not sure how I feel about that, though I surely disagree with Mr. Maher’s remarks. No one says the decisions will be easy, but I think that the above analysis makes the decisions at least reasonably defensible. After all, we must believe that there is a better answer to all of our ethical questions. If not, then why bother with civilization at all?

What say you?