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Kevin Williamson and All That: Missing the Big Story on Free Speech

People who care about defending freedom of expression are grateful for just about any attention the issue receives from the media. That is the case even as the big story, a most egregious and longstanding abuse of power in hindering open inquiry, goes unnoticed.

NPR’s All Things Considered reports, “Professors Are Targets In Online Culture Wars; Some Fight Back.” Who are these “targets”? One is Professor George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University, who saw his career spoiled after he tweeted that “all I want for Christmas is white genocide,” a sentiment he later explained as being “satirical.” He ultimately chose to resign amid “unrelenting harassment and death threats.”

Another professor, Eve Browning, chair of the philosophy department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, sought to intimidate and silence a graduate student for making “offensive comments about Islam.” How offensive? The student had told a fellow grad student, “I don’t think highly of Islam because I am bisexual and could be legally put to death in about a dozen countries that use Islam for their legal system.” The offending grad student subsequently left for Texas State University where the environment “is considerably better about open speech.” Yet the professor, not the student, is presented by NPR as the “target” of abuse.

NPR aside, the free speech martyr of the moment is journalist Kevin Williamson, formerly of National Review. He had been hired away by The Atlantic only to be, very shortly after, fired over earlier remarks that were not merely “harsh,” as some have said, but vicious and stupid. While often a clever writer, Williamson has a history of saying vicious and stupid things, as The Atlantic well knew. Some of his erstwhile NR colleagues rightly criticize the liberal publication for being “cowardly” and unfair in its treatment of Williamson as a “thought criminal.”

No one should be harassed, threatened, or intimidated, or treated unfairly by a new (or old) employer. Yet I’m not crying too many tears for Eve Browning, George Ciccariello-Maher, or Kevin Williamson. All suffered consequences for speech that was purely obnoxious. Williamson, for his part, had suggested (“sardonically”!) that women who have abortions be hanged. Previously, his best-known view, expressed in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, was that “dysfunctional, downscale communities” in flyover Trump country “deserve to die.” No, sorry, nothing in Williamson’s own reportedly hardscrabble background excuses such scathing attacks on the more vulnerable and less privileged. All that is grotesque.

And it’s in remarkable contrast with the real “thought criminals” around here. I mean, literally, around here. Every day we deal with, advocate for, and seek to protect scientists and scholars who fear for their jobs and livelihoods. They are Darwin doubters and proponents of intelligent design (dismissed as “cranks” by Williamson himself). And their plight goes unnoticed by the media. You can acquaint yourself with some of their stories at the website Free Science.

Eve Browning was “targeted” for targeting a less powerful colleague, a grad student, over politically incorrect speech. George Ciccariello-Maher was harassed for joking about genocide. The scientists whose situations are highlighted at Free Science include people whose names we can’t safely discuss in public, because they are so vulnerable to harassment and career repercussions. What is their crime? Only the very worst: seeking to objectively explore evidence of design in biology and cosmology.

Free speech is a serious issue, but so is something equally precious: the answers to ultimate questions, questions that have intrigued human beings for millennia. The censored scientists at Free Science want to pursue their careers free of fear. But it’s not only their private interests that they care about. They want to know what’s true about the origins of life and of the universe, so that they can share what they find with the rest of us.

Their thought crime is to seek the scientific truth about subjects that should matter intensely to every thoughtful adult. We are the voice in the wilderness that speaks for them. We’ll go on doing so, but having some company in the undertaking would be welcome.

Photo: Kevin Williamson, via Upstream Ideas/YouTube.