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Monday, April 21, 2014
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Published: 1/11/2011

Free, responsible speech

No, Brian Wilson did not call Toledo Public Schools students “little monkeys.” But the talk-radio host and his defenders ought not complain that this newspaper yanked his recent observations about public education out of context, and at the same time try to ignore or deny the broader context of local leaders' criticism of his remarks.

During his broadcast last Friday, Mr. Wilson asserted that the federal No Child Left Behind law signed by President George W. Bush imposes too many mandates on public schools. Among them, he said, are standardized exams that force teachers to teach to the test rather than focus on more-rigorous intellectual concepts. He also complained that unions make it difficult for school districts such as TPS to remove bad teachers.

Although that argument is not new, it has several noteworthy aspects. First, it is inaccurate: Districts such as TPS engage in far less of the sort of rote learning he decries (“What are the capitals of the 50 states in America?”) than they once did. Indeed, that shift is a primary complaint of back-to-basics educational conservatives.

And while criticism of overemphasis on standardized testing is valid, that argument usually is made by left-of-center commentators in response to testing requirements demanded by right-of-center politicians. In this case, the critique may be less ideological than reflective of Mr. Wilson's libertarian contempt for government.

But such fine points got lost once Mr. Wilson compared the process of Toledo students learning answers to test questions to “teaching little monkeys to peel bananas … correctly on cue.” TPS leaders, civil rights groups, and other local officials demanded an apology from Mr. Wilson, punishment by his bosses, and a review by federal broadcast regulators.

Comparing humans with lesser primates is, of course, a standard racial insult. Although there is no evidence that that was Mr. Wilson's intent, an experienced broadcaster should have anticipated that his words would give offense.

He conceded this week that his comparison had been “unfortunate.” The radio station's general manager called it “inappropriate.” At the very least, it was irresponsible.

The episode again reflects the potential and real risks of speaking carelessly or impulsively. Our constitutional right to free speech does not absolve us — media provocateur, politician, private citizen, or anyone else — of the consequences of our words.

The hoary injunction to think at length before we speak may be especially difficult for someone who must fill three hours of airtime each weekday with his words, and whose Web site describes his Toledo antagonists as “idiots.” But as this incident reminds us, the words we use — and the way we react to others' words — matter a great deal.



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