With his achievements including the execution of women for alleged adultery, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Columbia University unsurprisingly kicked up a furor here and around the world, much of it aimed at the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, for inviting him.
While waiting for the show to go on, a Fox News camera outside Alfred Lerner Hall focused on a couple of students, one of whom ran down a list of some of the guest’s crimes against his own people and against Americans. She angrily blamed Columbia for giving Ahmadinejad “a chance to legitimatize himself.”
Standing next to her, another student disagreed, saying, “Justice Louis Brandeis used to say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. What’s happening right now at Columbia is a testament to that.”
The second student walked away aware, I’m sure, that his was a decidedly minority view in the city, the state, and the nation. I heard no presidential candidate of either party supporting Bollinger, while there were bipartisan denunciations of him by politicians, many editorial writers, and other Americans who believe in freedom of speech—except for speech they hate.
For example, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a long and valiant practitioner of free speech, wrote in USA Today (September 24) that having Ahmadinejad at Columbia was “a perversion of free speech.” On the same day, USA Today‘s lead editorial was titled: “Let Iranian President Speak—To Showcase U.S. Values.” (Instructively, USA Today‘s editor is Ken Paulson, former head of the First Amendment Center—a resource of mine—based at Vanderbilt University.)
Until now, I have not mentioned the free speech rallying cry, “the First Amendment,” because Columbia is a private university and the First Amendment doesn’t kick in unless there is action by an agent or agency of the state (local, state, and federal) to repress speech.
But the warfare on Lee Bollinger’s alleged perversion of academic freedom has indeed become a First Amendment issue—thanks to Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, and the most powerful behind-the-scenes operator in Albany.
On September 24, a front-page story in The New York Sun reported that because Lee Bollinger refused to bow to public pressure to cancel the radioactive invitation, Silver and other lawmakers “are considering withholding public funds [in the future] from [Columbia]” in protest. Said the assembly’s Wizard of Oz: “We have an obligation because of the U.N. to allow [this sponsor of terrorism] to come to this country . . . We don’t have to give him a forum. . . . He’s clearly responsible for the deaths of Americans both in Iraq and elsewhere. And he remains as much a threat to the world as anybody today.”
Added another summer soldier of the free exchange of ideas, David Weprin, chairman of New York City Council’s Finance Committee: “We should,” he told the Sun, “look at [our funding of] everything involving Columbia, whether it be capital projects, city and state, or other related things that we do in the city for them.”
And that’s a lot. The Sun‘s Jacob Gershman noted: “Albany awards Columbia millions of dollars a year in student financial aid. . . . Last year, Albany awarded the school $10 million for a nanotechnology center and $12 million for a cancer center in Washington Heights.”
In solidarity with this proposed punishment of Lee Bollinger by our holders of the public purse, should patients at the Washington Heights cancer center now try to go elsewhere? And should this contemplated punishment of Columbia set a precedent for an Enemies’ List in Albany, other states, and Washington to prevent taxpayers’ money going to institutions harboring, however briefly, enemies or those linked to enemies of the United States? I expect Dick Cheney would help update such a list.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have twice been involved directly in—and spoken at Columbia on—dramatic free-speech controversies there. Most recently, when Jim Gilchrist, head of the anti-immigration Minutemen, was invited to speak at Columbia, a raging, politically correct posse rushed onto the podium, knocking people about, and most effectively prevented Gilchrist from speaking.
After I wrote a Voice column, “Mugging the Minutemen,” I was invited to Columbia to debate a leader of that onslaught on unacceptable speech. Neither of us had our views changed, but at least I was not punched out.
Lee Bollinger initiated an investigation into Gilchrist’s being prevented to speak, but very little came of it. Last month, I heard that Gilchrist was to be invited back to Columbia. But that invitation has been scrubbed because of fear of disruption. Gee, what did they expect with Ahmadinejad?
Before the imbroglio at the Minutemen event, I had written a number of columns in the
Voice substantiating the disclosures by some Jewish students at Columbia that certain professors in the Middle East Studies department were intimidating Jewish students who had the unmitigated chutzpah to question, in class, the factual bases for those particular professors’ condemnations of Israel. And then, at a spirited conference at Columbia, I defended my thesis.
The Jewish students, daring to question Columbia-certified scholars, received a lot of flack for a documentary film, Columbia Unbecoming, on their charges; and some other professors, though agreeing with them, declined to be in the film. There’d be too much heat.
Subsequently, Lee Bollinger revised Columbia’s far from friendly student-complaint system, but the bureaucratic hurdles remained.
In the aftermath of the Ahmadinejad storm, I was disappointed to see in the September 26 New York Times that Emily Steinberger, a spokeswoman for LionPAC, a pro-Israel organization at Columbia, “had vehemently opposed” the invitation. It was LionPAC that greatly helped spread the word about constrictions of student free speech in the Middle East Studies department. But attachment to free speech is often situational rather than ingrained. However, Steinberger did applaud Bollinger’s speaking truth to his guests.
Credit is due, on the other hand, to Michael Bloomberg for his reaction to the mighty Sheldon Silver’s threat. The mayor characterized Silver’s stance as “cheap political pandering.”
I think the person currently running for the presidency as America’s Mayor would have demanded even harsher stripping of state funds to Columbia.
Lee Bollinger was responsible for a historic “teaching moment” in American public life; and not surprisingly, so many, in and out of public life, didn’t get the message.
Bollinger is also criticized for being too rude to his guest; but plain speaking to the strangler of freedom in Iran is essential. Our own president requires a great deal more plain speaking from the Democratic Congress—and us. And, introducing Robert Mugabe or Fidel Castro, I, too, would be rude as hell.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2007