Throughout history, academia has invited speakers with less than perfect reputations and more than slightly controversial views to speak to campuses across the globe. Sometimes these speakers are welcomed with open minds and greeted by students and faculty seeking intelligent debate and differing views.
But sometimes there’s another type of greeting.
Last Monday, Columbia University extended a New York welcome to the president of Iran, who was visiting on a speaking engagement with the university before he spoke in front of the United Nations.
Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger introduced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the stage, and used his time in the spotlight to berate the president’s competence, the president’s views and his country. Bollinger left no stone unturned in his rant, even going so far as to silence the crowd’s applause in order to finish his prepared statement.
Bollinger is a proponent of free speech, and took advantage of what the First Amendment provides U.S. citizens, spending approximately 15 minutes citing examples of why Ahmadinejad was not credible. Examples include saying the president showed “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator” and that the president’s denial of the Holocaust was “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”
Bollinger’s rant is an exercise in the right to free speech, and is simultaneously an attempt to restrain another’s. While the Iranian president may have obscene views and is arguably a ruthless leader, free speech is not limited to a select few. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is granted free speech in America.
The words of Bollinger are not only ironic, they are downright idiotic.
For free speech to persevere in a free society, it’s imperative to show all angles and all opinions, no matter how unpopular some of those may be. For Americans to know what is right, they must first be allowed to experience what is wrong.
Bollinger’s words were embarrassing and inappropriate: embarrassing to the university he works for, to the American people he represented and the ideals this country was founded on.
If the Columbia University president didn’t want the Iranian president to speak, they should have never invited him in the first place.