Free Speech

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"Free Speech"

I’m a little confused by the framing of the decision to extend an invitation for Mahmoud Ahmadenijad to speak at Columbia University as “free speech.” Everyone, including Ahmadenijad, has a right to speak his mind in this country, but nobody has a right to a specific platform at a major university. I, after all, haven’t been granted such an invitation and there’s no particular reason he should have gotten one either. For all the reasons Ross cites a lot of the right’s reaction to this has been overheated, but it’s still fundamentally odd to decide that a maniac should participate in a debate with a university president as part of a bizarre publicity stunt whose main purpose is to exaggerate the importance of both men.

Conversely, though, things like Duncan Hunter’s new plan to cut off funding to Columbia University is a real free speech issue. The university really has the right to stage an asinine publicity stunt if it wants to without the federal government stepping in.

Part of the tragedy here is that the American public really ought to know more about the Iranian government’s perspective on the issues of the day. The US and Iran have outstanding conflicts over nuclear issues, Iraq, and Afghanistan but also some potential for common interests on some of these topics. And most of the Iranian officials — Ali Larijani from the National Security Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the Assembly of Experts, foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki — aren’t prone to rants about the non-existence of the Holocaust and all the rest. They’re not nice men as such, but they really are people such that it’s worth hearing what they have to say about the various issues in play. Unfortunately, both Ahmadenijad and America’s Iran hawks have an interest in pretending that Ahmadenijad’s a key actor and his goofier ideas are the center of the dispute. Why Bollinger wants to re-enforce this I couldn’t say. For attention, I guess.

UPDATE: See what Steve Clemons said about this.

UPDATE II: By contrast, the idea of forbidding Ahmadenijad from going to Ground Zero was crazy and closer to a real free speech issue. Moreover, it seems to me that the desire to visit the site was driven by a desire to underline the idea that the US and Iran face a common enemy in Iran, and the move to block him driven by a desire to obscure that point.

UPDATE III: One last point. I should be clear that it’s not just that “I, after all, haven’t been granted such an invitation and there’s no particular reason he should have gotten one either,” but that there are tons and tons of other heads of state and heads of government in New York for UN-related things at the moment and they’re obviously not all speaking at Columbia so it’s not as if Ahmadenijad is just getting some kind of automatic “foreign leader’s in town, let’s have a chat” treatment. What’s more, the vast majority of the heads of government hanging around the city have much more practical influence in their regimes than does Ahmadenijad. Sarkozy really runs France, etc.

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