Cornering the market on free speech

by Beacon Staff • November 5, 2008

p>Lately, Emerson College has become a robust marketplace of ideas, even beyond ruminations about the presidential election. Two noxious ideas have been pushed by Emersonians, and the college's community has rightly judged both to be as worthless as so many subprime mortgage loans.At issue: When free speech offendsbr /br style="font-weight: bold;" style="font-weight: bold;"Our view: Ignorance, publicized, is rightly disproven and rejected

br /Lately, Emerson College has become a robust marketplace of ideas, even beyond ruminations about the presidential election. Two noxious ideas have been pushed by Emersonians, and the college's community has rightly judged both to be as worthless as so many subprime mortgage loans.

First, it was hateful racist graffiti in the Piano Row dormitory; now, it's an ignorant passage in alumnus Denis Leary's forthcoming book. For all the outrage over both incidents, this is precisely as it should be. Racists and fools make defending First Amendment rights difficult, but these embarrassing events demonstrate why free speech remains essential.

Leary, a prominent Emerson fundraiser, titled a chapter of his new book "Autism Schmautism" and therein blames the syndrome on "inattentive mothers and competitive dads." The passage provoked the ire of Emerson grads who are mothers and fathers of autistic children. Emerson President Jacqueline Liebergott denounced the writing in a letter to these aggrieved alumni.

Bear in mind that Leary made a name for himself with the song, "I'm An Asshole." He's also a provocateur and sometime comedian, someone Dave Chappelle might call a "habitual line-stepper." He's got the right to tell bad jokes as well as good, but it was the misinformation in his autistic authorship that aroused righteous indignation.

The truth is, nobody knows what causes autism. A recent study reported in USA Today suggested heavy rainfall in regions like the Pacific Northwest increases the likelihood of the syndrome. Blame it on the rain, perhaps, but not the parents.

The full-throated rejection of Leary's calumnies is justified. Calls for removal from his prominent role as an Emerson promoter and fundraiser are not. The fundamentals of unfettered speech are at work here: Ignorance, once publicized, is disproven and rejected. Censuring Leary now would only lend his ideas the authority of persecution.

Emerson responded in kind to the hate speech found on a bulletin board in Piano Row. The graffiti, troubling as it was, provided an opportunity for students and administrators to publicly condemn the cowardly writer. The response, hopefully, will discourage further offensive foolishness.

It's important to remember, however, that unpopular ideas play an important role in democracy and civic society. We saw the unpopular ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists vindicated on Election Day. Hopefully, Barack Obama's election sends a message to the lonely racist in Piano Row that his ideas are not only out of place, but out of time.

That's the genius of the marketplace of ideas: a powerful dream can change the world, while hateful doctrines are doomed to moral bankruptcy.