On balance, I think it was unwise for Columbia to invite Ahmadinejad (although conservative criticism of that decision helped produce a surprisingly good result). Ahmadinejad’s status as the chief patron of world-wide holocaust denial, in particular, puts him in a category where good judgement legitimately tells against lending him a platform. Columbia’s right to invite any speaker does not exempt that university from the obligation to exercise good judgement. But I say “on balance” because I do think it’s a question of balance. Those who remind us that we once allowed Krushchev to visit–and note that Khrushchev’s U.N. speech ultimately hurt him, not us–have a point.
There are a number of cross-cutting factors here. It may indeed be unwise to invite an “ordinary” holocaust denier to speak, but there is a case for exposing Americans to the bad ideas of enemy leaders–as in Khrushchev’s U.N. speech, or the 1959 Nixon-Krushchev “kitchen debate.” So what do you do when an enemy leader is also a holocaust denier? Iran is now actively killing Americans in Iraq. Was that the case with Russians in 1960? It wasn’t the case with either Soviets or Germans in 1933.
Take a look at this letter to the Columbia Spectator from Arnold Beichman. Beichman, a long-time foe of communism, was a past-editor of the Columbia Spectator, who graduated in 1934. Beichman tells the story here of how he as editor handled a controversy involving invited speakers from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Notice that the solution in the early 30′s involved letting everyone speak. That’s still the right ideal, and the burden ought to be on those who argue against speaking invitations (again, I think that burden can be legitimately borne in Ahmadinejad’s case, but it’s a judgement call).
What makes our own day a bit different is Columbia’s track record on Gilchrist, ROTC, and the like. By keeping too many folks out, the contemporary academy may be shifting the burden of our debates in an unfortunate direction. It would be unfortunate if giving everyone equal speech rights came to mean shutting everyone equally up.
Imagine what would have happened if the Columbia faculty had removed the ROTC ban a couple of years ago and if Gilchrist’s attackers had been harshly punished. There would still have been a good case against inviting Ahmadinejad, but I do think that if the university insisted on an invite by pointing to its actions in these other areas, they would have had a stronger case. At any rate, Beichman’s letter is worth a look.
It’s true that an individual’s right to free speech does not include a right to be handed a platform by a prestigious university. Yet it’s also true that our free speech traditions involve more than just a question of rights. John Stuart Mill stressed the need to positively promote and encourage a marketplace of ideas. That is why, although nobody has a “right” to be handed a prestigious platform, prominent leaders and public advocates do enjoy some presumption that their presence at a university could be edifying (and open to balance by invitations to opposing advocates at a later date). This doesn’t mean that any notorious figure ought to be invited to a university to speak. But I do think it’s appropriate to put a burden on those who would argue against such invitations. That burden can sometimes be shouldered.