Condemnation and cries for censorship formed a disturbing backdrop for the run-up to today’s World Leaders Forum at Columbia University featuring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad has been accused of denying the Holocaust, advocating the destruction of Israel, and supporting terrorist groups throughout the Middle East, and criticized for a host of policies within Iran such as the country’s intolerant treatment of homosexuals, women, and academics.
But his presence — however controversial — was welcomed by the University in the spirit of academic freedom and freedom of speech; University officials assured that Ahmadinejad would not merely be given a forum to air his views, but would be greeted by incisive questions and debate. In a statement made last week, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger explained:
Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. To fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.
I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.
As promised, students and New Yorkers exercised their own right to free speech by making a robust show of their disapproval of Ahmadinejad and their condemnation of his policies and views. President Bollinger and numerous Columbia students challenged the Iranian leader with a series of sharp questions. These were all signs of democracy in action: even though his ideas are controversial, and deeply offensive to some, Ahmadinejad was met head-on with rigorous debate and criticism.
But not everyone was up to the task of respecting this core tenet of academic freedom. In an interview with the NY Sun, NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver made veiled threats that the University would be punished for its decision to host Ahmadinejad. Referring, not-too-subtly, to state funding and demonstration a startling ignorance of (if not outright contempt for) basic First Amendment principles, Silver stated, "Obviously, there’s some degree of capital support that has been provided to Columbia in the past. These are things people might take a different view of … knowing that this is that kind of an institution."
Just what kind of institution is "that?" One where competing ideas, even offensive ones, are allowed to see light of day, so that free-thinking people can make up their own minds? Where falsehoods and prejudices can be exposed, confronted, and refuted? That is the ideal of an American university. As some commentators pointed out, such an exchange as took place today would be unthinkable at an Iranian institution of higher learning. Isn’t that what defines American values and freedoms?
NCAC fully supports the courageous and principled actions of Mr. Bollinger and the students of Columbia, and deplores the thuggish, anti-intellectual threats made by Assembly Speaker Silver. We strongly urge him to reconsider his position and recant his threats against the University — and we encourage you to do the same:
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Press & Resources
» The NY Times’ City Room live-blogs the Ahmadinejad forum
» Two Columbia students, Rebecca Evans and Brandon Hammer, speak out in defense of academic freedom