Last week, Columbia University touched off a firestorm not only in New York but around the world when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech on campus. Many people expressed anger and even horror that a civilized, intellectual institution of higher learning would give a platform to someone that many regard as an agent of repression, terror and ignorance. Columbia President Lee Bollinger, well known in higher education for confronting difficult issues (his name is on the famous affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan, where he was president prior to taking the helm at Columbia), compounded the controversy when he used the moment of his introduction of President Ahmadinejad to excoriate the Iranian President as a “petty and cruel dictator” with “ridiculous” and “preposterous” ideas (Ahmadinejad has denied the reality of the Holocaust.)
Many critics have applauded or lambasted both men. The New York Times supported Columbia. Rosa Brooks wrote a particularly pungent column in the L.A. Times. Critics of Columbia and Bollinger have said that the university had no business hosting a speaker who is hostile to the United States. One member of Congress has even introduced legislation to cut off funding to Columbia. Was Bollinger’s opening salvo against Ahmadinejad just a ploy to appease his critics?
Should a university be able to host any speaker on earth, no matter how repugnant the person’s ideas? Does the invitation itself convey some sort of legitimacy? Do the ground rules for creating the free speech forum include treating the speaker courteously, i.e., refraining from open hostility toward the speaker’s ideas?
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote one of the most famous statements about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in his dissenting opinion in U.S. v. Schwimmer, a 1929 case in which an immigrant woman, a pacifist, was denied citizenship because she refused to swear an oath of allegiance which included a declaration that she would “take up arms personally” if necessary to defend the United States. Justice Holmes wrote that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of thought and expression protects “not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate…”
The university community is one of the great pillars of civilized society, along with Family, Government, Corporate Life and Church. Universities play a unique role in society as the places where freedom of thought and speech must flourish in order to advance higher learning and research on the way to the formation of new knowledge, a process that is continuous. While the First Amendment protects citizens against government limitations on speech and belief, American custom has long extended the idea of “freedom of speech” to many places, most importantly, to university campuses both public and private.
Some critics have said that, in recent years, higher education has become complacent, even afraid of allowing the robust expression of divergent ideas. College presidents have come under particular fire for being too cautious, too eager to please donors or lawmakers at the expense of free expression. (I have a lot of colleagues in this business who have told me that even my rather tame, middle-of-the-road expression of opinions on this blog would be far too much for their institutional contexts. Sad.)
University leaders must be good stewards of the climate for free expression. But does freedom of speech mean that every conceivable idea should be expressed? Hardly. The balance between freedom and prudence is also our responsibility to exemplify, since even Justice Holmes realized that, “…falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic…” could not be protected by the First Amendment (Schenck v. U.S.)
What do you think? I’d like to hear from students, faculty, staff and other readers about your ideas on freedom of speech, whether Columbia University should have hosted President Ahmadinejad, whether the current situation with terrorism and war should mean that certain speakers should NOT be invited to campuses. Please send me your thoughts via email to email@example.com or click on the envelope icon below. Let me know if I can quote from you on this blog. Thanks.
See Professor Stanley Fish’s commentary in the New York Times…