Columbia University and Free Speech

Universities, if no other places, ought to be free speech free-fire zones where peacefully conducted speech is accommodated and encouraged. Persuasiveness and cogency in the “free marketplace of ideas” is the arbiter of ideas not mere assertion of authority. Indeed, it is only by testing and honing our ideas against others that we can be assured that we have not blundered into unrecognized error. Ideas ought not be prevented a hearing because some find them offensive or even evil.

This is this context in which Columbia University argues the reasonableness of inviting Iranian President Ahmadinejad, as part of the “Columbia Distinquished Lecture Series,” to speak at Columbia. Ahmadinejad actions and ideals are certainly controversial. He has spent the last year suppressing free speech of professors at Iranian universities, denying the Holocaust, threatening the existence of Israel, and pursued nuclear weapons in defiance of its signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is reasonable to argue that this particular invitation is more than just a concession to the disciplines of free speech. There is an implied university endorsement since the invitation is part of a distinguished lecture series. However, this little inconsistency could be overlooked if Columbia had a reputation and long history of open free speech. Unfortunately, Columbia University’s history is different. The non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rates the university stats as “red” where “ at least one policy … both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Fire reports that:

1) Columbia University requires an ideological litmus for its students in its Education School. Students must affirm that “social inequalities are often produced and perpetuated through systematic discrimination and justified by societal ideology of merit, social mobility, and individual responsibility.”

2) Columbia University’s Law School refrained from punishing a law professor for the phrasing of a hypothetical question on a law examination only after FIRE’s intervention. The law school’s instinctive reaction is, nonetheless, instructive. It took outsiders to point out that the punishment would have violated principles of academic freedom.

3) The university punished the hockey team for using the word “pussy” in a recruitment flier. The silly argument reduced to whether the word as offensive to women or whether it was reference to the university’s lion mascot.

Columbia University was also the site where a presentation by the Minutemen (invited by Columbia College Republicans), a movement to enforce US immigration laws, ended when some Columbia students stormed the stage to silence the speakers. Though Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University, decried the incident and issued some warnings and punishments to some of the students involved, many believe the censures were not proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Indeed, the censures will be removed from the transcripts of offending students upon graduation. This rebuke does not even reach the threat level of third grade teachers who would warn students that bad behavior would end up on “your permanent record.” Rather, the punishments from Columbia University are not likely to deter similar incidents in the future.

At the same time that that the President of an Iranian government that is providing equipment to kill young American soldiers in Iraq, Columbia prohibits ROTC on campus. Columbia does not appear equally hospitable to all ideas.

Columbia may argue that the invitation to President Ahmadinejad is a logical consequence of their commitment to free speech. However, given the University’s efforts to suppress ideas they do not agree with, the university should forgive us if many are not entirely persuaded.

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