Cathy Young Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

The new immigration study released by the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, quickly went from fanfare to fiasco. News came out that its co-author, Jason Richwine, wrote his 2009 Harvard PhD dissertation on immigration and IQ, contending that Hispanic immigrants and their descendants have "effectively permanent" lower intelligence than native-born white Americans. The revelation caused Richwine to resign from his post as an analyst at Heritage.

Some see this as evidence of widespread bigotry on the right; others, as evidence of the politically correct suppression of free inquiry -- an attack on free speech. In fact, the Richwine debacle is a good demonstration of where and why some inquiry crosses the line of legitimacy. It also shows that, thankfully, mainstream conservatives are willing to maintain that line.

Charles Murray, a scholar who has himself faced controversy over his writings on race and intelligence, commented that Richwine is being punished for "crimethink" (as in George Orwell's totalitarian state in "1984"). Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin, an immigration opponent, refers to Richwine's critics as his "crucifiers" and warns, "No researcher or academic institution is safe if this smear campaign succeeds."

The study of differences between groups, including differences in intellectual capacity, should not be a taboo topic in academia -- and it's not, as evidenced by the fact that Harvard's Kennedy School of Government granted Richwine's degree. But there's a good reason this kind of scholarship elicits unease.

Historically, arguments about the genetic inferiority of some ethnic and racial groups have had calamitous real-life consequences -- including mass murder. Here in the United States, such claims justified policies that violated basic rights and dignity, from institutionalized discrimination to forced sterilization.

Richwine did not simply pursue dispassionate scholarly inquiry. One of his academic advisers, Richard Zeckhauser, has said that he was "too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy." Indeed, the paper Richwine co-authored for Heritage effectively suggested that members of some groups should be less highly valued, and less welcome to the United States as immigrants, than others. (While the Heritage study did not have overt racial or ethnic overtones, critics charged that it tendentiously played up the economic costs of lower-skilled, less educated immigrants while ignoring the benefits.) So the question of whether Richwine's work might have a possible racial subtext was bound to arise.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Richwine's record is further tainted by the company he has kept. In 2010, he penned two articles for an online magazine called Alternative Right, which bills itself as a venue for "radical, traditionalist, and nationalist outlooks." Its founder and regular contributor Richard Spencer chairs a Montana-based "think tank for White Americans" and unabashedly champions white "nationalism." The current editor, Colin Liddell, recently penned a repulsive piece on Holocaust Remembrance Day that purports to argue for equal attention to mass slaughters of non-Jews, but also refers to the Jewish Holocaust as a "supposed historical event" and quips about "the Chosen People."

Richwine's contributions to the site, written to rebut a pro-immigration article in The American Conservative, argued that more Hispanic immigration means more crime.

While no one knows if Richwine is racist, his public record clearly has an unsavory odor. But that doesn't compromise all conservatism: There are elements in both liberal and conservative ideologies today that serve as magnets for ugly views. The best mainstream groups on both sides of the spectrum can do is firmly repudiate such views -- which is no attack on free speech.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics. Follow her on Twitter: @cathyyoung63.