A day before a scheduled event hosted by the Parliamentary Debate Team, Columbia officials barred Bruce Friedrich, vice president of PETA, from speaking on campus. This action disrespected students and stands in contradiction to Columbia’s values of free speech.
Friedrich was banned from Columbia’s campus for his behavior at a 2004 Commencement ceremony, when he walked up to the microphone and made claims about Columbia’s mistreatment of animals in research laboratories.
Though it was within the jurisdiction of the administration and public safety to ban Friedrich from returning to campus, they acted in an unprofessional manner by reversing the initial decision to allow the event to proceed as planned. The administration’s last-minute re-evaluation marks an embarrassing lack of professionalism on the part of the administration.
The University claimed that the event was canceled due to “security concerns” and that Friedrich was a “persona non grata” on Columbia’s campus. The two justifications for barring Friedrich—one that relies on specific security concerns and another that emphasizes his status as a persona non grata—are in contradiction and show a lack of consideration for the student interest garnered by the event.
To consider Friedrich a threat to Columbia’s security is ludicrous. Friedrich, though having comported himself in an improper way in 2004, does not pose a security concern to Columbia. After considering the numerous controversial figures that have spoken at Columbia despite security concerns, a debate event in Lerner hardly seems to compare in gravity. Furthermore, if the administration had raised the persona non grata issue in advance, another representative from PETA could have attended the debate.
Though the University claimed to be unaware that Friedrich was planning on attending the event, the restriction of the event to only debate members suggests otherwise.
Even if the University was unaware of Friedrich’s participation in the scheduled debate, due diligence should have revealed that relevant information.
In mishandling of the event planning, the administration disappointed and disrespected the students who had been planning this event for weeks. Though the University acted in contradiction to the values of free speech and open debate, the effects of their actions were tangible to the students who worked to bring an important discussion to campus.
Columbia takes pride in the fact that our campus provides a forum for debate and exchange of ideas that are often unwelcome at other institutions. Regardless of Friedrich’s misconduct, the mishandling of the debate event violates the University’s principles by preventing the dissemination of ideas. In the future, if there are concerns over safety or persona non grata, the administration must deal with them in a timely manner, giving students ample time to alter their plans. Columbia should demonstrate more respect toward its students, particularly when we strive to uphold the values that Columbia holds dear.