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Ahmadinejad Speech at Columbia:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a bad and dangerous man, but it seems that Columbia was quite right to have him speak there as part of its World Leaders Forum. Columbia students can benefit from hearing bad world leaders as well as good ones; I'm pretty confident that most of the students in the audience will be able to tell one from the other — and if they're not, then the event offers a great opportunity for them to do so.

If the event were some special honor for the person — as endowed lectures, "visiting public interest mentor" positions, graduation speeches, and the like often are — I would take a different view: A university should not honor the dishonorable. But my sense is that the World Leaders Forum does not carry the university's endorsement of the speaker's moral character, only of his significance on the world stage (which Ahmadinejad regrettably has plenty of).

Incidentally, the blog reports about Ahmadinejad's talk — which I read after I decided to post this — reinforce my view on the subject. It looks like Columbia President Bollinger has forcefully expressed his disagreement with Ahmadinejad, thus reminding people that the invitation didn't constitute endorsement of Ahmadinejad's beliefs.

This may be one of the I realize my friend and coblogger David Bernstein might disagree with me on this, but experienced Volokh Conspiracy readers know that such amicable inter-blogger disagreements happen on occasion.

UPDATE: Stop the ACLU faults a Columbia dean (John Coatsworth) for saying that they'd have invited Hitler, too. The dean said:

If Hitler were in the United States and he wanted a platform from which to speak he would have plenty of platforms to speak from in the United States. If he were willing to engage in a debate and a discussion, to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him.

That seems to me to be an entirely correct attitude. Presumably the discussion here is of the pre-Dec. 1941 Hitler (I take it that he wouldn't have been in the U.S. after war between Germany and the U.S. had been declared). Americans were trying to figure out what to do about Nazi Germany. Hitler indeed would have had lots of opportunities to give propaganda speeches. But if Columbia had an opportunity to help its students see and hear Hitler in person, and hear how he dealt with probing and hostile questions -- such as the questions that Bollinger seems to have addressed to Ahmadinejad -- it seems to me that this would have been a valuable service to Columbia students, and perhaps to the American public more broadly.

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Ahmadinejad Speech:

Eugene's right, I do disagree with Columbia's decision to invite Ahmadinejad. That Pres. Bollinger made sure to have the right to questioning him is better than giving him a completely open forum, but it's not enough.

Unlike when I objected last time Ahmadinejad was to visit Columbia, my reason this time is that Ahmadinejad is the head of state of an enemy state, whose armed forces are killing American soldiers with equipment they provide to Iraqi insurgents. That makes Ahmadinejad an enemy of the United States, something that can't be overcome with some questions.

Should an American university care? Or should a university be completely cosmopolitan about such things. In some ways it's a tough call, but ultimately I think that American universities should come down on the side of not giving a respectful forum to our enemies. It's unfashionable in Ivy League circles to talk about such things as enemies, but they do exist. And with Ahmadinejad one can't make the argument that this is just a matter of great power politics or otherwise, an aberration that could be corrected through dialogue. He's an enemy not simply in a current physical struggle, but in an ideological one, as well.

In short, I wouldn't invite Stalin or Mao to Columbia when their forces were directly or indirectly killing Americans in North Korea, and I wouldn't invite Ahmadinejad, either.

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Know Your Enemy, Help Friends Know He's Their Enemy, Know Your Enemy's Friends:

If you want to defeat the enemy (e.g., the Iranian regime), it seems to me you should:

1. Know Your Enemy: The more you learn about him, the better you'll be at figuring out his tactical and strategic weaknesses, and those of people like him.

2. Help Friends Know He's Their Enemy: Often, some of your fellow citizens don't grasp how bad your enemy is. If you can get him to indict himself in front of them, they may learn.

3. Know Your Enemy's Friends: Some others among your fellow citizens might underestimate your enemy's dangerousness, because they're unaware of how many people support him. The applause for Ahmadinejad at Columbia, which some have pointed to as evidence of Columbia's error in inviting him, strikes me as quite valuable -- it shows that even in the U.S., Ahmadinejad has supporters, which helps show how dangerous he and his people really are.

Of course, there is a countervailing factor:

4. Avoiding Giving Your Enemy a Chance To Make More Friends: It would be good to avoid giving Ahmadinejad free propaganda opportunities, through which he could mouth friendly-seeming banalities. But it seems to me that the Columbia's World Leaders Forum is in general not a great propaganda outlet -- and this is especially so when President Lee Bollinger asks questions that help show Ahmadinejad's true nature.

So here, even more than in most situations, it seems to me that the interests of giving students more information coincide with the national interest. A commenter to my earlier post writes, "Ahmadinejad is our blood enemy. He should be defeated or, optimally, killed. We waste time that would be better spent accomplishing one or the other by listening to him." I don't think it's either-or -- I think that listening to people like Ahmadinejad, especially in forums such as the Columbia forum, will indeed help us defeat them (and, where helpful and appropriate, kill them).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Columbia and the First Amendment:
  2. Know Your Enemy, Help Friends Know He's Their Enemy, Know Your Enemy's Friends:
  3. Ahmadinejad Speech:
  4. Ahmadinejad Speech at Columbia:
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Columbia and the First Amendment:

The New York Sun reports that New York city and state government officials are threatening to retaliate against Columbia -- for instance, by cutting off various government subsidies for Columbia all its students -- for its inviting Ahmadinejad to speak:

[T]he speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, said lawmakers, outraged over Columbia's insistence on allowing the Iranian president to speak at its World Leaders Forum, would consider reducing capital aid and other financial assistance to the school....

"There are issues that Columbia may have before us that obviously this cavalier attitude would be something that people would recall," Mr. Silver said. "Obviously, there's some degree of capital support that has been provided to Columbia in the past. These are things people might take a different view of ... knowing that this is that kind of an institution."

Mr. Silver faulted Columbia for "attempting to legitimize this individual," saying, "We have an obligation because of the U.N. to allow him to come to this country. It doesn't mean we have to make him welcome. We don't have to give him a forum." ...

"Bollinger made a big mistake, and there should be consequences for him for making that decision," the chairman of the New York City Council's Finance Committee, David Weprin, said in an interview. "We should look at everything involving Columbia, whether it be capital projects, city and state, or other related things that we do in the city for them," he said....

Albany awards Columbia millions of dollars a year in student financial aid and also provides funding for smaller-scale capital projects. Last year, Albany awarded the school $10 million for nanotechnology center and $12 million for a cancer center in Washington Heights.

Columbia uses the state Dormitory Authority to borrow money at low interest rates. Mr. Silver could use his influence over the authority to weed out Columbia bonding projects before they are submitted for approval.

The school is also seeking approval from city lawmakers for its plan to expand into a 17-acre swath of land in West Harlem. Albany also has the power to use eminent domain to facilitate Columbia's expansion....

Naturally, the government is not obligated to provide most subsidies to Columbia. It can also insist that some subsidies not be used for speech of which the government disapproves: For instance, it can require that certain subsidies be used for speech about prenatal care but not for speech about abortion.

But the government may not say, "We'll give you this subsidy, but only if you promise not to say X, Y, or Z using your own money." That's what the Court held in FCC v. League of Women Voters, when it held that Congress can't say to public broadcasters, "We'll give you money, but only if you promise not to editorialize even using your own money." This is surely at least equally true if the extracted promise were viewpoint-based, for instance that the broadcaster (or, here, the university) wouldn't carry speech by enemies of America, or Holocaust deniers, or anti-Semites.

Here, the government isn't saying, "We'll give you this subsidy, but only if you don't invite anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers." Rather, it seems to be threatening to say, "We won't give you future subsidies because you invited anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers." But the latter ought to be at least as constitutionally troublesome as the former (perhaps even more so because it requires subsidy recipients to guess as to what speech will cause them to lose their subsidies).

Now if the government were to say, "Here's a subsidy, which we want you to use for praise of racial and religious tolerance," then it could insist that this subsidy isn't used for other speech. If Columbia then wanted to invite Ahmadinejad to speak, it would have to make sure that all his funding came from sources other than this subsidy. But the government can't use its funding as a means to constrain all of Columbia's speech, without regard to whether that speech took advantage of that government funding. And that sounds like what the New York officials are trying to do.

And such a result strikes me as quite right. Federal, state, and local governments take about 25-30% of the GNP and then redistribute them. Nearly everyone, including speakers, receives a huge amount of government subsidies. If the government could deny subsidies to those who expressed views the government dislikes (not just using government money, but also using entirely private money) then it could restrict what university officials, university professors, corporate officials and employees, and others say on a wide range of topics. Imagine the deterrent effect if a legislature stripped universities of benefits whenever university officials, or even professors or guests whom the universities had invited, suggested that there might be cognitive differences between men and women, that race-based affirmative action is a bad idea, that certain religions were dangerous, that the threat of global warming is overstated, or whatever else.

So my bottom line: Criticize or praise Columbia's invitation of Ahmadinejad as you will. But don't threaten government retaliation for Columbia's speech, or the speech of people whom Columbia has invited.

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