As an expert in free speech rights, President Lee Bollinger should know that Ahmadinejad’s visit is no such matter. First of all, no American owes Ahmadinejad the “right” to free speech since he is not a U.S. citizen. Columbia is a private institution and thus is not bound by Constitutional requirements. Columbia might claim that as an institution of higher learning, it has a duty to those with minority opinions, even abhorrent ones, in order to promote discussion and debate. This is flawed reasoning. There is no need to extend Ahmadinejad this platform by claiming he has a minority opinion which requires the “safe haven” of a university. He is the leader of a nation. He has plenty of avenues to get his views across, from his own press conferences, to ABC interviews, to speeches at the UN. But if the argument is that we should hear Ahmadinejad because he is an “important” world leader, and not base our invitations to leaders on the abhorrence of their views, then there is no argument to be made for ever not inviting someone to speak. Under this logic, SIPA would have invited Hitler to speak in 1938, and President Bollinger, after condemning Kristallnacht, would introduce him to much applause.
Ruven Ellberger, CC ’05
I am pleasantly surprised at Dean John Coatsworth’s courage to say that Columbia would invite Hitler to speak in 2007, 70 years after the war. But also your fearless defense of free speech on campus for the Iranian president, but not for Jim Gilchrist who came to speak about securing the borders of the nation. I know that President Lee Bollinger wrote two books on free speech so he can be forgiven for his hypocrisy. But is Dean Coatsworth also a free speech advocate?
I am disappointed with the lack of scruples at Columbia almost 40 years after the students shut down the University due to Grayson Kirk’s insensitivity to the free speech of students in 1968.
Roy Bercaw, GS ’70
The Bush Administration appears to be maneuvering ideologically to attack Iran. In this context, verbal attacks on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are a colossal distraction from some important facts:
* However anti-Semitic Ahmadinejad may be, 25,000 Jews live in Iran, are represented in the Iranian Parliament, and don’t want to leave;
* Israel and the U.S. pose far greater military threats to Iran than Iran poses to Israel and the U.S.;
* Since 2003, Iran has been meeting the reporting requirements of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA). The Agency reported in August that it “is able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.”
* The IAEA and Iran have reached an agreement on a work plan to clear up outstanding questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities. This plan needs time to work.
* Iran has repeatedly indicated its openness to the operation of limited nuclear enrichment facilities in Iran under heightened IAEA monitoring and with foreign participation.
Whatever the Iranian President’s defects, there is presently no basis in international law for a military attack on Iran or for the threat of such an attack.
Brian D’Agostino, CC ’78
As an educated person, I am repulsed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s casual disregard for history, reason, and international diplomacy. As a Jew, and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, I am horrified by his willingness to question the existence and extent of one of the worst tragedies in the history of our humanity.
As a member of the Columbia community, I applaud the offer of a venue for this abhorrent man to make his first speech on an American university campus.
Almost one year ago, I wrote an opinion piece in this newspaper expressing my disgust at the Columbia community as a result of two separate events, one being the retraction of an offer to President Ahmadinejad to speak at last year’s World Leaders Forum. The administration has, in my eyes, taken an enormous step in the right direction to rectify that error by allowing the Iranian president a pulpit. As I wrote last year, no matter what viewpoints a speaker may proffer, the violent suppression of speech has no place at an institution of higher learning—by the administration or the student body.
The student body must take this opportunity to protest, paint banners, shout slogans; to make absolutely certain that the president of Iran understands our University’s disgust with his positions. But they must do so in a manner that does not disrupt the speech. Allow him to make clear his hateful rhetoric, and then challenge him on it. This is the greatest power an intellectual community has to effect change.
Ahmadinejad’s speech will no doubt be riddled with falsity, hyperbole, and hate—let’s call him out. Let’s show the world that Columbia University is above base thuggery, and is the hallowed ground of sharp and eager minds unwilling to compromise their ideals—including the ideal that makes all academic discourse possible: That no idea, no matter how noxious, is too frightening to be heard—and challenged and disproven.
Do not be swayed by the almost-certain public outcry that will accompany the speech. Only the worst kind of hypocrites can condemn the students who rushed the stage at the Gilchrist speech without praising Columbia’s brave decision to invite such an unpopular figure to speak. President Bollinger’s statement was pointed and well-crafted; Ahmadinejad will be forced to defend his regime’s human rights abuses and his personal stances on the existence of Israel and the historical fact of the Holocaust. This is exactly the sort of opportunity we should be rejoicing, not denouncing. I only hope that the Columbia community recognizes it for what it is, and does not bow to either the bluster of punditry or the urges of hoolganism. Good luck, Alma Mater—I can’t wait to see what you decide to do.
Ben Widlanski, CC ’04