Free Speech: When?

It would be hard not to have noticed all the publicity surrounding Columbia University’s decision to invite Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to campus earlier this week. Well, he came, spoke, and went, but the controversy continues.

At the center of the storm, of course, is the issue of “free speech” on a college/university campus on the one hand, and whether there are any constraints to such freedom, on the other. These issues are not as black and white as they might appear. Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger has both come under fire for providing Ahmadinejad with a platform after he has spewed such hate and an understanding of history that is seriously flawed, and been praised for upholding the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Bollinger’s position was not unanimously shared by all his administrators at Columbia. Here is the statement released by the Dean of Columbia’s Law School:


(Sept. 23, 2007) — A controversy has developed about the invitation extended to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran by the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.  Although Columbia Law School was not involved in arranging this invitation, we have received many inquiries about it.

This event raises deep and complicated issues about how best to express our commitment to intellectual freedom, and to our free way of life. Although we believe in free and open debate at Columbia and should never suppress points of view, we are also committed to academic standards. A high-quality academic discussion depends on intellectual honesty but, unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven himself, time and again, to be uninterested in whether his words are true. Therefore, my personal opinion is that he should not be invited to speak.  Mr. Ahmadinejad is a reprehensible and dangerous figure who presides over a repressive regime, is responsible for the death of American soldiers, denies the Holocaust, and calls for the destruction of Israel. It would be deeply regrettable if some misread this invitation as lending prestige or legitimacy to his views. Our university is a pluralistic place, and I recognize that others within our community take a different view in good faith, and that they have the right to extend invitations that I personally would not extend. I know that we will learn from each other in discussing the difficult questions prompted by this invitation.

David M. Schizer
Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law
Columbia Law School

I happen to agree with Dean Schizer. I am a great proponent of free speech and intellectual freedom. I also believe these rights come with responsibilities. The dean put it well, emphasizing “intellectual honesty” and “academic standards” as important considerations when weighing whether someone should have the right to exercise free speech.

What are your views? Interested to know.


This is all well and good, but how does an community–like Middlebury–determine whether a particular example of free speech is intellectually honest? Who serves as gatekeeper? The administration?

The whole event from Bollinger’s discourteous introduction to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, that was little more than propaganda, reflected badly on higher education. What we sorely need is for both those in Iran and the US to end the shouting match across the chasm and instead engage in some thoughtful listening and dialogue.

I agree with your position, but I’m not even sure that free speech is the issue. Ahmadinejad did have freedom of speech here (unlike his fellow citizens in Iran). He was free to speak in the street, shout from the rooftops and mouth off to the press. But Columbia shouldn’t have given him the honor of an invitation and a podium. And while he did expound on some of his despicable beliefs, he kept it very mild in comparison to what he has said in Iran. Predictably, Columbia students were treated to a cleaned up version of Ahmadinejad intended to make him seem not so bad.

I would have to agree 100% with Ron’s comment at the end of Professor Schizer’s statement, and I hope we will apply the same standards of “intellectual honesty” and “academic standards” with regard to the selection of our commencement speakers in the future.

I agree also in everything that we speak is our responsibility because it comes from our own decision even if we say that you just heard it from this person yet still you choose to spoke about it.

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