Hypatia's Library
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
 
Research & Freedom of Speech
I was particularly struck by this article that equates freedom to do research with freedom of speech.

The article says:
Why legal scholars would defend the right to research is hardly mysterious. The founding fathers passionately defended scientific and academic freedom, and the Supreme Court has traditionally had a high regard for it. In Griswold v. Connecticut, for example, the decision that struck down state prohibitions on the sale of contraceptives, the court stated that the First Amendment protected ''freedom of inquiry.'' But why would the right to read, write and speak as you please extend to the right to experiment in the lab? ....As with journalism, actions that are not strictly speech (research) are so necessary to speech (publishing) that to ban them is to ban the speech.

This idea appeals to me in general. I think that being told that you can't think about and examine or question something really restricts many of the freedoms that I associate with freedom of speech. This especially holds true for me in the soft sciences - Political Science, English, History, Linguistics, Economics. In these areas to be banned from thinking about something is the same or highly similar in my mind as being banned from engaging in public speech.

But the article goes on to argue: R. Alta Charo, legal scholar and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, says that some experiments are constitutionally protected ''expressive conduct'' in their own right. ''If the questions you ask and the science you do really challenges or explores cultural or religious or political norms . . . that in itself is an act of rebellion, and this is exactly the sort of thing that fits comfortably in the spirit of the First Amendment.''

So while I believe in protecting freedom of inquiry, I wonder where does my act of rebellion in conducting research start to become something that should legitimately be subjected to governmental oversight. Cloning is on area of research that the article brings up. Another frowned upon area of research is looking for genetic links to differences in intelligence or examining racial profiles for medical/behavioral differences. These could be banned areas of research (California actually came close to interfering in these lines of research not too long ago)

But more critically, I really respect the role of governmental oversight in certain areas of research such as the protection of human subjects . I don't think we can trust scientists in general to act ethically in this area. I think that the scientist's own self interest in terms of career advancement or even interest in the general good without regard to individual rights may overwhelm what would be percieved as ethical by an unbiased uninvolved observer. So should certain questions or certain methods of research be illegal? Or should all research regardless of how it is done or who does it be protected speech?

The government can restrict speech if it can prove a ''compelling interest,'' like public safety or national security. But courts have set that bar very high. Unlike, say, an experiment that releases smallpox into the wind to study how it spreads, which could be banned, embryo research presents no readily apparent danger to public health or security.

And if that's the case, scientists who wish to create stem cells by cloning might have a new source of succor: the U.S. Constitution.


One of the ways the government controls what and how things are studied is through grants. And through restrictions placed upon institutions that accept federal funding (i.e. all large research institutions). So, my understanding of current scientific practice is that you can study pretty much anything you darn well please. Including human cloning (the article's final example of what might be protected speech). BUT the government can also choose not to pay for it . So following the freedom of speech argument, I can advocate for anything I want, but the government doesn't have to help me do so. Does saying the freedom of inquiry is protected speech mean that the government should pay for all valid lines of inquiry?

Often government funding is the only way for certain projects to be accomplished. Denying government funding is tantamount to banning the research entirely. Think of the superconducting supercolliders used in theoretical physics research. Or the admittedly risky basic science required to create new drugs or invent new therapies. It's not that you just get to poor while doing the research and maybe it takes a bit longer than it otherwise might because you haven't got a research assistant or can't pay subjects. In many cases, without the dollars, there is NO research program. It's just you and the ideas and nothing. In this case, maybe the government does have to help protect your freedom of speech by providing you with support.

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