We all know of the controversy surrounding Columbia University this week. A lunatic, a sponsor of terror who is actively building a nuclear weapons program, was given a podium at this respected American institution. In a move that was likely prompted by the criticism Columbia had faced in the days leading to the event, University President Lee Bollinger gave an introduction meant to distance the school from the statements made by their guest, and to address the concerns of the protesters outside the campus.
Among other things, President Bollinger said â€œthis event has nothing whatsoever to do with any rights of the speaker, but only with our rights to listen and speak.â€ I heard these words, and I asked myself two questions. What about this apperance was necessary to the exercise of our right to listen? The President of Iran spoke again the very next day at the UN General Assembly, and every word he said was carried live by the major news organizations. He said nothing truly different at Columbia University than what he said at the UN, and his words were available to all.
What about our ability to speak, then? Surely the ability to question and speak out against him is a valid reason to host a despicable figure such as Ahmadinejad. And yet, as he concluded his introduction, President Bollinger quite bluntly stated â€œMr. President. I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions.â€ If that is the case (and it clearly was, for Ahmadinejad did not directly answer a single question President Bollinger or the students asked of him, other than to deny the validity of the questions), why have him present at all? President Bollinger can speak to a roomful of Columibia students any time he likes, and many Collumbia students spoke out quite vocally at protests against the Ahmadinejad appearance, both at Columbia and at the UN. In truth, the presence of President Ahmadinejad was not necessary for the exercise of free speech.
Freedom of speech is nothing but a red herring in this incident. The 1st Amendment of the US Constitution is about government censorship, not about the decisions of those speaking. The right to speech is protected in this country, but like all rights, it is up to the citizen to decide when to exercise it. This is the point where Columbia University failed this week. Inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad to speak was an irresponsible exercise of a right, designed to do little other than garner publicity for the university as the center of controversy.
This is what this weekâ€™s protests were about. No one sought to curtail anyoneâ€™s right to speak. Those opposed to the Ahmadinejad appearance were protesting Columbiaâ€™s decision in exercising that right for this purpose. We protested, because in â€œeducatingâ€ a student body that clearly already knew everything President Ahmadinejad would say, Columbia University lent its credibility, and its microphone, to an enemy of this country. No one opposes their right to make that decision. We oppose the irresponsible decision itself.