24 September 2007

24 September 2007 - Against Ahmedinejad's speech

I am strongly opposed to Columbia University’s decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak on campus. The invitation is being defended as an exercise of “free speech.” But the principles of free speech or academic freedom do not require a university to extend an invitation to every nut who wants a platform, particularly when that nut brutally suppresses those freedoms in his own country.

Many of those who, like me, oppose Columbia’s decision have tried to draw a distinction between “free speech” and “hate speech.” I think this is irrelevant. What people have forgotten is that free speech is a right held by individuals against interference by the government. The speech of a government official, especially a head of state, does not require such protection and its therefore irrelevant.

A foreign leader should therefore enjoy the right to free speech in the U.S. only on a reciprocal basis—i.e. to the extent that he grants such liberties to his people. Columbia claims it is promoting the exchange of views, but there is no one on earth who does not know what Ahmedinejad’s essential views are. He hates Jews, Israel and liberal democracy. He believes the end is nigh and wants to make it happen.

Columbia has said it has allowed Ahmedinejad to speak on the condition that he allow “equal time” for questions and challenges. This amounts to giving him “double time,” because how long can it take to ask a question? Ahmedinejad will spend most of the second half of the program responding, and he knows it. He is also a seasoned debater and probably relishes the thought of hostile questions from Americans.

Regardless of the outcome of the “debate,” Columbia is allowing Ahmedinejad to score a propaganda coup whose victims will be both foreign enemies and his domestic opponents, as he uses this event to boost his image back home. A Columbia dean recently said he would have even extended an invitation to Adolf Hitler, if he’d been prepared to answer questions. Pre-selected, of course, as always.

This is a farce, and a mockery of free speech. A university that does not allow the U.S. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) onto campus is rolling out the red carpet for one of America’s enemies. Many people I deeply respect think that Columbia has done the right thing for world peace. I think it is an unwise, arrogant intervention that can only frustrate the goals of free and peace-loving nations.

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