Columbia University President Lee Bollinger got just about everything wrong that one could have gotten wrong in how he handled the speech by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad there.
He was wrong to issue the invitation at all. Americans are so devoted to the supposed imperatives of the First Amendment that we mistakenly assume that every demand, or even desire, to speak must be honored instantly in the high name of "free speech." I don't know how President Ahmadinejad conveyed his desire to speak at Columbia, or even whether (as is perhaps more likely) the invitation was issued unbidden from President Bollinger. In any case, Bollinger managed to imply that honoring this Middle Eastern thug by inviting him to speak there was an absolute constitutional necessity. After all, we must observe the holy obligation to allow everyone to speak, mustn't we? Especially when it is someone with whom we profoundly disagree.
Well, let's see what the First Amendment actually says. The relevant words are, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." Nothing there about a private institution having to provide a prestigious platform for a contemptible "tyrant" (as Bollinger later called Ahmadinejad -- of which more later). On London's Hyde Park Corner all sorts of crackpots are allowed to set up soapboxes and harangue anyone who will listen (and there are always a few) on any topic that strikes their fancy. And the same amiable practice is followed in New York's Union Square, and no doubt in all sorts of other places around the country. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing any law prohibiting this or any other expression of opinion, and the prohibition has wisely been interpreted as applying equally to the New York City Council or any other law-making body.
But we have so fetishized the "right of free speech" that President Bollinger could and did rely on it to justify his invitation to Ahmadinejad. More likely his real purpose was to entertain Columbia's students by scandalizing them with a speech by a certified villain and then giving them, in the question period, a chance to expose the villain with withering questions.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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