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Ben Carson and the price of free speech

There is much we don't know about Dr. Ben Carson's decision to withdraw as a commencement speaker for the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and education. His recent comments in opposition to gay marriage, in which he compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, prompted a petition from some Hopkins students for him to be removed as a speaker. The dean of the Hopkins med school wrote a letter condemning the remarks, and Dr. Carson apologized. What happened between that series of events and his decision to step down — whether he faced additional pressure, by whom and how — will likely remain a mystery.

However, there is nothing in what we do know that suggests Dr. Carson's right to free speech was in any way infringed. The cries to the contrary by Dr. Carson's defenders display something of a misunderstanding of what protections, exactly, the First Amendment affords.

The Bill of Rights prohibits Congress (and by extension, state and local governments) from passing any law to inhibit free speech. As such, Dr. Carson is free to believe and say whatever he likes without fear that the government will take action to sanction him as a result. But the First Amendment does not require that any private individual or institution afford him a platform to speak, nor does it absolve him of facing private consequences for his speech. No one is under any obligation to respect Dr. Carson based on what he says just because he has a right to say it.

Dr. Carson's defenders argue that backlash over few poorly chosen words should not overshadow a life of tremendous accomplishment. Indeed, Dr. Carson's eminence stems not just from his skills as a surgeon but also from his extensive charitable work and his willingness to use his own up-by-the-bootstraps story to inspire others. Whether he will ultimately be remembered more for that or for the current controversy likely depends on what he does after his planned retirement this year.

But make no mistake, this is no matter of political correctness gone amok. Certainly, opposition to gay marriage remains for the moment within the bounds of mainstream political discourse — though given the rapidity with which Americans are coming to see it as a fundamental civil rights issue, that may not be the case for long. But the specific remark Dr. Carson made is something else entirely.

What he said during a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity was: "Marriage is between a man and a woman. No group, be they gays, be they [the North American Man/Boy Love Association], be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition." That refers to a line of reasoning made by some opponents of marriage equality: If we change the traditional definition of marriage to accommodate one group, how do we justify denying marriage rights to anyone else?

The answer is, pedophilia and bestiality are exploitative and abusive practices rooted in one party's desire for power and domination over another. Both are classified by the American Psychiatric Association as mental disorders. The push for same-sex marriage is about promoting a fundamental building block for strong families and communities. What got so many people upset with Dr. Carson is that his comment suggests he doesn't see the difference.

That said, Hopkins as an institution of learning has a tradition of encouraging the free exchange of ideas and a commitment to free speech that exist entirely apart from any legal obligations. Indeed, universities have a tradition of protecting those who express unpopular ideas, and they could hardly do their job if they did not expose students to a wide variety of perspectives. That set of values, ultimately, carried the day this week when the undergraduate Student Government Association's Judiciary Committee reversed a decision by the student Senate to deny recognition to an anti-abortion group. On the surface, that would seem to contradict in some way Dr. Carson's situation. Did the actions of the students who petitioned to remove Dr. Carson and the dean who criticized him run counter to the school's principles?

Dr. Paul B. Rothman, the medical dean, expressed this conflict in values well in his letter to the Hopkins community. Dr. Rothman referred to Dr. Carson's comments as "hurtful, offensive" and in opposition to Hopkins' institutional belief in equal civil rights for all regardless of sexual orientation. "While his recent comments are inconsistent with our core values," Dr. Rothman added, "Dr. Carson has the right to participate in public debates and media interviews and express his personal opinions on political, social and religious issues. We strongly value freedom of expression and affirm Dr. Carson's right, as a private citizen, to state his personal views."

The question here is not whether Hopkins is attempting to silence Dr. Carson — clearly, it is not. Nor is it whether Dr. Rothman overstepped his bounds; he surely has just as much right to express his views and those of the institution he represents as Dr. Carson does. The issue is whether the students want Dr. Carson as their graduation speaker. If they don't — for whatever reason — they have a perfect right to say so as well. In his letter, Dr. Rothman said he would meet with them on Monday of this week to gauge their opinions on the matter.

It is, of course, extremely unlikely that the topic of gay marriage — or, for that matter, Dr. Carson's qualms about Obamacare or his advocacy for a flat tax — would come up in a graduation speech. Such events are better suited to the kind of inspiring story Dr. Carson is well suited to provide, and depending on who the university can line up as a replacement, the students may well miss out by not having him there.

However, it is impossible now for the students or anyone else to view Dr. Carson simply as a great surgeon. He has quite deliberately waded into politics, and that is now part of his public identity as well. His right to do so, to attempt to influence the laws and values of this nation, is a precious thing, but it comes with a price, and as Dr. Carson decides what to do once he leaves medicine, he needs to consider whether it is a cost he is willing to bear.

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