NYU Was Right To Cancel Watson Talk

Connor Borden

James Watson, esteemed biochemist and Nobel laureate, was slated to speak at NYU Langone on Sept. 12, until protestations from students caused the university to rescind their offer. Watson has made a number of racist, sexist and body-shaming remarks over the years, most recently in 2007. Because of his controversial history, NYU felt it was inappropriate to host a speaker whose views do not align with the values held by the school, despite Watson’s recanting of his statements.

Many were upset with the university after the cancellation, claiming that the move was a hindrance of free speech. Some felt NYU had overstepped their boundaries and should not have rescinded a speaking opportunity after it is offered to a guest. On the contrary — NYU cancelling Watson’s event is not a case of limiting free speech in the slightest. Those unhappy with NYU surely knew that he was not going to come to speak about his view that African American employees underperform and have inherently lower IQ than their white coworkers, although that is something he claimed. Watson was coming to talk about science rather than his personal views. However, that is the exact point the university is making by cancelling Watson’s talk. NYU is not hindering free speech by cancelling a lecture on biochemistry. Rather, NYU is guarding its credibility and upholding its values as a university that strives for a commitment to diversity and tolerance.

The freedom of speech, guaranteed and upheld by our constitution, was written to prevent the government from imprisoning citizens for criticism against the state. However, the amendment does not condone hateful or dangerous speech, nor does it shield citizens from the consequences of their bigotry. NYU has every right to cancel a lecture that it booked, one that would have taken place on school property and used its resources. Beyond this, NYU has every right to host or not host a controversial individual. These are not instances of censorship. They are not instances of coddling or oversensitivity. NYU is addressing a larger problem of systematic discrimination and biological determinism that holds us back as a more inclusive academic community. The scientific community is aware that female and African American scientists are the most likely to leave the STEM field. This has nothing to do with their inherent intelligence or their emotions, but rather the racism and sexism perpetuated by the white men who have historically dominated science.

NYU should be applauded instead of demonized for this move. It is time to end our glorification of famous and important people in science and other fields in light of their derogatory and backwards ideas. People like Watson do not move us forward in this regard, but rather tarnish the progress that they and others have made.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

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1 COMMENT

  1. It appears the author has yet to take a civics class, or a class in the ideas of the founding fathers. In fact, free speech was not about the idea of government sanctions or the lack thereof, but rather a nod to the Enlightenment ideal of free speech, which is unfettered debate amongst educated people (which, one can extend given that time periods elitism to now mean all citizens, particularly educated or not.) Almost all universities that pledge some commitment to free expression in their mission statements are essentially as bound to this idea of free speech as a public university. They did not have to invite Watson in the first place. Once invited, it is pure cruelty to uninvite him, and it makes it seem like the students have the potential ability to veto any speech they don’t like. This is known as the heckler’s veto and there is much international and US case law developing around that.

    I say this not to insult the author, though I think it is pretty clear they are merely parroting progressive talking points, but for potential future readers to understand that the author is wrong about basic facts that underlie the workings of our country, and a hope that no one is misled by the author’s errors. As a PoC, I think the author is not entitled to her own facts in service of her opinion, which the author IS entitled to.

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