Over the past few days I’ve been mildly scolded by a few folks who said I was abandoning my “normally consistent” free speech position – my advocacy for the marketplace of ideas on campus. When a university decides that it will invite some speakers and either decline to invite (or worse) allow the silencing of others, this pattern of invitations and denials becomes a powerful form of university expression – it is the university’s own way of telling the world which ideas it believes worthy of debate and discussion and which ideas it believes to be beyond the pale of civilized discourse.
So, when Columbia allows its students to silence law-abiding, prominent conservative Americans, when it refuses to allow ROTC on its campus, or when it permits its faculty to silence pro-Israel Jewish students, it loudly communicates to Americans that Columbia University believes certain (relatively mainstream) ideas about border security, national security, and Zionism are simply too repugnant to be discussed or taught. At Minding the Campus, John Leo relates his own experiences with Columbia’s censorship:
One of Columbia’s favorite tricks is to cancel a speaker, or reduce the size of the audience, on grounds that violence might break out. Last fall most of a large crowd that gathered to hear former PLO terrorist-turned-anti-Jihadist Walid Shoebat was turned away over securities worries. Only Columbia students and 20 guests got in. The same thing happened to Dinesh D’Souza, myself and several other speakers in 1999. A large crowd, including many from other New York campuses, had tickets, but the administration (this was a pre-Bollinger year) ruled that only Columbia students could attend. This was not the deal that had been agreed on, but Columbia was adamant. Rather than speak to a tiny remnant on campus, the speakers withdrew to a park nearby. As I spoke, one student shouted “Ha-ha. We’re inside. You’re out here,” an excellent six-word explanation of how Columbia’s robust free-speech tradition actually works.
But then when the university turns around and invites the world’s foremost Holocaust denier and leader of a country that supports terrorism, is actively killing American troops, and defying the U.N. by pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it clearly communicates that those views are entitled to more respect and attention than those of their own pro-Israel students, anti-Jihadist Muslims, certain “secure borders” conservatives, and even our own military. When Columbia makes that choice, it is not choosing “free speech,” it is instead choosing to present a point of view – a point of view that is morally reprehensible.
Now, I suppose it is possible for one of academia’s most dysfunctional institutions to say, “OK, we were wrong about our previous acts of censorship, and we’re going to change and maintain a true open forum – starting with the President of Iran.” But that’s not what happened here. The double standards existed before Ahmadinejab arrived, and they still exist.
Ultimately, Columbia has chosen to exercise its academic freedom (as a private institution) to exclude certain conservative voices and grant a Holocaust denier the most publicly prominent platform that it could provide. I am exercising my own free speech rights to assert that Columbia made an abhorrent choice. If the university is going to choose to close its doors to some and open its doors to others (as is its right), it has opened its doors to the wrong man.