On Free Speech

I was a little disappointed this morning to open my newspaper and discover that Columbia University was coming under criticism for allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak there.  Not because I thought they shouldn’t have allowed him to speak, but because I thought the "controversy" was just plain ridiculous.

Once upon a time, I ran a university lecture program myself. One of the questions I asked myself when I took that gig was whether there were people who simply shouldn’t be allowed to speak. The classical way this is phrased is "if it were 1938, would you have allowed Hitler to speak on your platform?"

My answer was: yes. Yes, I would have. Speech — even hateful and factually untrue speech — is never best countered by suppression; that only drives it underground and gives it a martyr’s mystique that it does not deserve. The best counter to hate speech is more speech; only by contending with the ideas of the hatemonger and overcoming them in the minds and hearts of the people can we ever truly drive them out.

That’s why I was so disappointed to see people like Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, calling for Columbia to refuse to let Ahmadinejad speak. Implicit in Foxman’s argument is the idea that the people are too weak-minded to see Ahmadinejad’s arguments for what they are; that we must be protected from them, or else they will inevitably overcome us.

When run properly, a platform is neutral; you do not endorse a person’s opinions simply by providing them a space in which to air them. The question which drives the choice of who to allow to speak from your platform should not be "do I agree with this person?" Rather, it should be "are this person’s ideas affecting the world we live in?" Given the central position that Iran currently occupies in our foreign policy discourse, it’s hard to see how Ahmadinejad fails that test.

In the end, the students and faculty of Columbia appear to have proven Foxman’s fears ungrounded; they met Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric head on, as free-thinking citizens of a free republic should. I applaud Columbia for showing Ahmadinejad and the world what free speech looks like — from all angles.



September 25, 2007
12:01 am

The right, of course, is upset because Ahmagonnagetdajews spoke but Jim Gitdembrownpeopleouttahyeahchrist didn’t. Another blogger pointed out that it’s pretty useless to have a politician speak; they’ll either dodge the question or lie (“There are no homosexuals in Iran! Though Larrahbeh Craigstani does spread his legs quite wide in the stall, praise Allah.”), so it ends up basically being a publicity event. And since Columbia is about 1/4 gov’t funded, that means you and I had to subsidize a dictator’s chance to look silly/brave and raise Columbia’s prestige.
On balance, it’s a good thing that it happened, but I’m not awaiting the Second Coming of the ACLU over it.


September 26, 2007
10:01 am

I agree with you 100% on this issue. Good post.