What Does the First Amendment Require?

Posted: Oct 11, 2007 12:01 AM
What Does the First Amendment Require?

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.

It didn't work out that way, of course -- as Bollinger ought to have known, and Ahmadinejad certainly knew, it wouldn't. The questions the students asked that day, whatever they were, have long since been forgotten, and a watching world remembers only the image of President Ahmadinejad on television, politely and patiently asking perfectly intelligent questions, such as why historical events like the Holocaust cannot continue to be studied indefinitely. And the surroundings in which he asked them were not those of a soapbox in Union Square, but the lapidary circumstances of an auditorium at one of America's most prestigious universities, following an introduction by its president.

Bollinger used that introduction to lay down a barrage of insults to Ahmadinejad, calling him a "tyrant" and much else, whereby he clearly hoped to take some of the curse off of his blunder in inviting him in the first place. But this amounted to piling one blunder on top of another. If Ahmadinejad was indeed not worth listening to (and he certainly wasn't), the remedy was not to trash him in introducing him but never to have invited him in the first place in obedience to some nonexistent requirement of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

There were plenty of avenues of opinion open to Ahmadinejad, when he came to this country, to say anything he wanted to say. There are scores of sympathetic print and electronic media here who would have considered it an honor to be selected to carry his words. There are halls without number that could have been hired, and filled to capacity with people eager to applaud him (as a robust minority of the Columbia audience did, to its shame). The idea that the Constitution required Lee Bollinger to offer this avowed enemy of the United States a distinguished setting in which to peddle his propaganda is a nonstarter if there ever was one.

The right of free speech is too precious to be perverted by a university president unable to tell a noble gesture from a cheap stunt.