Is a college campus a place for all views to be aired, or are some public figures too extreme to deserve the platform?
It’s a question numerous colleges have wrestled with, but perhaps none more frequently of late than
President Lee Bollinger has resisted calls to cancel the event, but promised to introduce the talk himself with a series of tough questions on topics including Ahmadinejad’s views on the Holocaust, his call for the destruction of the state of Israel and his government’s alleged support of terrorism.
The university “is committed to confronting ideas — to understand the world as it is and as it might be,” Bollinger said in a statement, emphasizing the invitation implied no endorsement of Ahmadinejad’s opinions.
But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said giving Ahmadinejad a platform is a betrayal of the persecuted scholars and students in Iran who do not enjoy academic freedom.
“There has to be some standard about who we give credibility to, who we give access to such a prestigious platform as Columbia University,” he said. “What is the message that is sent to the students in his country that have suffered under him?”
“This is not a man who ought to be hosted in civilized society,” he added.
Should a university be a kind of public soap box for anyone — or at least any public figure? Or should the university ensure that the imprimatur it gives through speaking invitations reflects general values, like tolerance?
The debate is fairly new, by historical standards. The modern conception of academic freedom is really only a century old at most, as is the transportation technology that can bring people from all over to a college campus. In a bygone era, students watched professors debate the issues of the day; now they pay five-figure tuition and want to watch the players themselves.
But the most controversial invitations often don’t please students; they make them angry. In the 1960s there were campus protests over inviting members of the American Nazi Party and radical groups espousing violence. Today the backdrop is often the contentious politics of the post-9/11 Middle East. At Yale, for instance, speakers such as neoconservative scholar Daniel Pipes and Israel-critic Norman Finkelstein have been greeted with campus protests.
The new twist is that the disputes are followed closely by blogs on all sides, whose readers deluge colleges with e-mails. Many schools resolve to endure the bad publicity (and potential fundraising hit) and try to create a “teachable moment.” Others have canceled or rescinded invitations, citing security concerns or a lack of “balance.”
Hamilton College in New York canceled a talk by Ward Churchill, who had called 9/11 victims “little Eichmans,” after receiving threats, and essentially rebuilt the campus program that had invited Churchill and former Weather Underground radical Susan Rosenberg to campus. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater elected to criticize Churchill but honored an invitation to let him speak.
Other controversial speakers have faced opposition less from administrators than from attendees. Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter was hit with a pie during a University of Arizona appearance in 2004, and the next year had to cut short a speech at the University of Connecticut when she was drowned out by jeers.
At Columbia, the debates over both the Middle East and free speech have been especially hot, and Bollinger has faced criticism from all sides. By asking the tough questions he may be hoping to imitate then-vice president Richard Nixon, who in a 1959 Moscow visit boosted his standing by lecturing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the famous “kitchen debate.”
Colleges should support speakers who, like at Columbia, were legitimately invited by faculty and students, said Robert O’Neil, a former president of the universities of Wisconsin and Virginia and a leading scholar on campus free speech. But there is no obligation to provide a platform for just anyone who demands one.
The American Association of University Professors issued a statement on outside speakers in 2005 and is currently circulating an open letter to reiterate its principles. The letter urges presidents not to give in to outside pressure.
“Revulsion at ideas or fear of them is understandable, but ideas are best answered with thought and conversation, not with censorship,” the letter reads.
Free-speech advocates say the chance to call public attention to Ahmadinejad’s views is one of the best arguments for allowing him to speak. Protests are planned at Columbia’s campus and the U.N.
“I’d be very surprised if the Columbia community did not as a result of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s appearance on Monday learn a great deal more about what’s wrong with contemporary Iran than they would have ever learned if President Ahmadinejad had been turned away,” O’Neil said. “If you suppress a viewpoint by disallowing or barring a controversial speaker you make the speaker a martyr.”
During the 1930s, “one of the things we really lacked in this country was sufficient contact with Nazis to realize what they are up to,” said Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil rights attorney who has sharply criticized higher education for failing to support free speech on campus. The notion “that you’re going to take really awful people and not listen to them is really suicidal for any society.”
His greater concern is that colleges — seeing the public relations and security nightmare that controversial speakers entail — will shy away entirely.
“That’s the kind of soft-censorship, the censorship that happens before the invitation is issued,” Silverglate said.