Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is speaking at Columbia University today. Norm Geras questions whether he should have been allowed to:
Columbia President, Lee Bollinger, appeals to a number of different principles in getting behind the invitation, which was issued by the university’s School of International and Public Affairs.
One of these principles is ‘the development of freedom of speech’. On that score Bollinger says:
It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas.
He’s clearly right about this: listening doesn’t imply endorsement. On the other hand, there’s nothing in the principle of freedom of speech that requires you to help to promote or publicize views that you find deeply objectionable. Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust-denier and Holocaust-denial is one of the most poisonous forms of anti-Semitism, apart from being a brazen historical lie. Must Columbia, in the interests of ‘the development of free speech’, host avowed racists of every stripe, other genocide-deniers, men who think that women are, by their nature, born to be subservient, and people who think that homosexuality is a sin and should be punishable? Of course not. Would they host such people? I don’t know.
Geras is right that freedom of speech does not require one to facilitate speech you dislike. As to whether Columbia would host “such people”, they almost certainly have done in the past — such views were commonplace in the West in the mid 20th century.
(BTW I’ve no evidence that Ahmadinejad is a racist. If people are calling him a racist because he doesn’t like Jews, i.e. saying Jews are a race, then shouldn’t those people equally be condemning Israel as racist for being a Jewish state? Somehow I think they do not.)
As to whether Columbia should have invited him, the invitation came from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Since Ahmadinejad is a head of state, he forms part of the School’s subject matter; it is thus as appropriate for the School to invite him as it is for the microbiology department to bring microbes on campus and study them.
Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust-denier. OK, that means he’s a stupid bigot, but frankly I don’t think that’s a reason to supress his views. On the contrary, Ahmadinejad’s views should be propagated as widely as possible, so everyone can see what a big turd he is.
All he has achieved by this is making himself (and by extension, Iran) look stupid, and playing into the hands of those in the USA who want to attack Iran. It’s not as if Iran was responsible for the Holocaust; if it had been then for that country to deny it would be something much more serious. But Turkey still denies that what they did to the Armenians amounted to genocide; and Belgium has only recently come to terms with Leopold II’s genocide in the Congo. Somehow I doubt there would be as much fuss if a Belgian or Turkish leader addressed a US university.