Freedom of Expression

L.A. Moran lamoran at gpu.utcs.utoronto.ca
Wed Nov 27 11:50:27 EST 1991


Recently on bionet.molbio.evolution we have been discussing the molecular
evidence for an Out-of-Africa hypothesis of human origins. I have questioned
this data and suggested that it is not nearly as strong as supporters of
the hypothesis would have us believe.

During this debate Jones Maxime Murphy posted several articles that implied
that my opposition to the Out-of-Africa hypothesis was motivated by racism.
In other words, he suggested that this was not a scientific discussion. 
Although I was personnally offended by this attack, I have attempted to
answer Jones' points as objectively as possible (with only a few flames of 
my own!).

Today I saw a message from Barry G. Hall in which he announced that he was
unsuscribing from the newsgroup because of the flames. This prompted a 
statement from David Kristofferson in which he said,

     "If abuses occur which result in an exodus of readers, I personally
      will ensure that technological steps are taken to shut the offenders
      off at the source."

Barry G. Hall then posted the following,

     "I've changed my mind. Don't unsubscribe me as I earlier requested.
      Why should the behavior of the Jones drive away participants who 
      would like to participate (or just listen to) discussions of 
      molecular evolution issues? Instead, I will (at the suggestion of
      another participant) now ask formally that Jones be unsubscribed 
      on the grounds that Jones has ceased participating in scientific 
      discussion, and is being a general bother to those who do wish to
      participate. This, by the way, is no more suggesting censorship 
      than it is censorship to throw unruly disruptive louts out of the
      hall during a discussion or debate where the particpants are 
      physically present. Jones is entitled to his/her opinion, and is
      welcome to voice it, but not in this forum."

It sure looks like censorship to me. Throwing "unruly disruptive louts" out
of the hall is exactly the sort of thing that a free society should never
condone unless it is absolutely certain that it can distinguish between
freedom of expression and legitimate dissent on the one hand, and behaviour
that must be suppressed. In an attempt to silence me I have been thrown out
of more than one hall in my youth. 

As far as I am concerned Jones is entitled to have an opinion and to voice
it in this forum. If he is wrong then that should become obvious on further
discussion. But what if he is right? What if I AM a racist and my motives 
are questionable? Would you still want to suppress him?

In respone to Barry G. Hall, David Kristofferson writes;

     "You are back on the list. I have sent Jones both a personal and
      public warning. I am not going to unsubscribe anyone without a
      warning first. If Jones is using USENET software to read and post, 
      we have other effective means of eliminating him from the forum if
      he continues to be abusive. Jones is still welcome to participate
      in scientific discussions here if he can stick to relevant topics, 
      but one more quip and he's out."

Then, in another newsgroup, David Kristofferson managed to offend just about
everybody when he said,

     "There have been a few incidents along similar lines recently on 
      a couple of BIOSCI newsgroups. Speaking in my role as BIOSCI
      manager, I'd appreciate it if both tasteless, racist, etc., 
      comments *AND* an endless stream of subsequent rebuttals were 
      left off of *ALL* BIOSCI newsgroups. It's not only an abuse and
      degradation of these forums, it's also an unfortunate general
      statement when even educated people can't control themselves.
      If one wants to force conversion of all of these newsgroups to
      moderated forums, keep it up and that will be the outcome. If you
      value open expression, then act responsibly. If this strikes
      some of the more passionate among you as "thought control," so
      be it. These forums are for professional research communications, 
      not off-color gossip."

Since it was me who referred to "thought control" several months ago I assume
that David addresses these comments to me. I deeply regret that David feels
that I can't "control myself" when I respond to racist comments. I also 
deeply regret that David and I have such different views of "open expression".
It is difficult for me to understand how one could value freedom of
expression while at the same time threatening to censure someone who
disagrees with you. I have great respect for David Kristofferson even though
we differ on this issue but the issue is important enough that it must be
brought into the open even if David is offended by my opposition.

I am most upset by the threat to censor USENET readers. In other cases
this has been done by complaining to system managers or other authority
figures at the site of the "offender". This is perceived as a major threat
by readers from countries that do not have as open a society as ours. These
readers fear that their jobs and security will be threatened if they dare
to voice an opinion that someone will find offensive. Is this the message
that we want to convey, that we will "tattle" on anyone who disagrees with
us?

It is clear that David's laudable goal is to encourage a high subscription
rate to BIOSCI newsgroups. He is responding to those who threaten to 
unsubscribe unless censorship is imposed. But this is a two edged sword.
I want to anounce publicly that if Jones, or anyone else, is prevented
from posting to any unmoderated BIOSCI newsgroup then I will unsubscribe to
all BIOSCI newsgroups and urge all of my colleagues to do the same.


Laurence A. Moran (Larry)
Dept. of Biochemistry
University of Toronto



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