Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ahmadinejad, Again

My last post on the Ahmadinejad visit to Columbia generated some very heated debate, which I won't join. Instead, I'll take another crack at some of the free speech/academic freedom issues.

A number of the comments on my last post, and a great many more comments in other fora, refer to the invitation extended to Ahmadinejad by Columbia. This is not exactly false but not exactly true, either. Ahmadinejad sought the invitation to speak at Columbia through Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia's Middle East Institute. The invitation was ultimately extended by John Coatsworth, the Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, who says: "Opportunities to hear, challenge, and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and dangerous world." It now appears that President Lee Bollinger will introduce Ahmadinejad, and challenge him on his Holocaust denial, calls for the destruction of Israel, support for terrorism and attacks on US troops, nuclear program, and suppression of women and others. There will be a chance for questions from the audience as well. You can read the various statements by Coatsworth and Bollinger at the links here.

The substantial level of participation by Columbia administrators, including the University President, make it plausible to describe Ahmadinejad's speech as "sponsored" by Columbia, in a way that it would not be fair to describe the speech of any and every speaker invited by any and every student group that way. Presumably that is why Bollinger thought it necessary to say: "
It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas."

At the same time, reading between the lines, I find hints that were it his call to make, Bollinger would not have invited Ahmadinejad. He says: "we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes." Translation: Coatsworth invited this guy, and our internal organization gives deans an absolute right to decide whom to invite to speak at their schools and departments.

One can certainly question whether a university ought to have a rule that the central administration unequivocally backs deans of particular units on decisions of this sort. One can, that is, argue that the dean of a department or school is not, in that capacity, entitled to the same sort of academic freedom as an individual professor. I raised this issue a few days ago (here). But I doubt that this out would have been available to Bollinger even if he wanted to take it. Either Coatsworth or Bulliet could easily have argued that he was acting in his capacity as faculty member in inviting Ahmadinejad.

Moreover, as one of the comments on an earlier post noted, so long as Bollinger has an absolutely hands-off policy, he can say with justification that an invitation to speak is not in any way an endorsement of a speaker's views. If Bollinger interfered with an invitation issued by Coatsworth (or if Coatsworth interfered with an invitation issued by one of his faculty members), then (subject to a caveat to which I return in the next paragraph) it would have to be on the ground that Ahmadinejad is "beyond the pale." But then the next time a student group or faculty member invites a speaker that many people find offensive, an administrative decision not to intervene would rightly be read as signaling that this speaker is not beyond the pale. For reasons such as these, internet service providers do not typically monitor the content their users post on their allocated space: A policy of objecting to any speech implicates one in the speech to which one does not object.

But now I come to an important caveat that might distinguish intervention to block a speech by Ahmadinejad from intervention to block speeches by others with profoundly offensive views. Ahmadinejad is not merely the holder and speaker of profoundly offensive views. He is also someone who has taken extremely dangerous actions. First Amendment doctrine sensibly distinguishes between content-based and content-neutral regulations of speech, and while the First Amendment does not apply of its own force to a private university, Columbia (like many universities) is committed to principles of free expression nonetheless. Suppose, then, that Columbia were to deny Ahmadinejad a forum not on the basis of an objection to what he has said or will say but on the basis of what he has done. Might Columbia apply a principle under which sponsors of terrorism, no matter what they say, don't get to give speeches at Columbia?

If the issue were literally governed by the First Amendment, the answer would probably be no, because speaker-based distinctions are deemed content-based. So Columbia would have to be applying a broader rule that doesn't refer to speech at all, such as a rule that forbids terrorism sponsors from setting foot on campus. However, Columbia does not appear to have such a rule, or if it does, that's not what's driving the people who object to Ahmadinejad's speech.

Because the First Amendment does not literally apply to Columbia, we can reject the equation of speaker-based limits with content-based limits. But even then, it's not clear that Columbia would keep faith with principles of free speech by blocking Ahmadinejad and only Ahmadinejad. He has done some very nasty things and would like to do still more, but that's true of others who speak at Columbia. What draws the most outrage are Ahmadinejad's views, and so Bollinger was probably right to conclude that taking the extraordinary step of rescinding the invitation to speak would have been based on an objection to those views.


Unknown said...

Heated indeed, and for good cause. Well, thank you for this - I don't think I agree with your ultimate conclusion (or with the institutional analysis), but between yourself and the Dean, we now at least have some CLS voices addressing this issue.

Lawler Walken said...

"Opportunities to hear, challenge, and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and dangerous world."

Ok, I freely admit I work for a living and am not part of academia (joke alert) but do all Deans really speak in such a pompous fashion? Training of "students for citizenship"? A "shrinking and dangerous world"? What does all that even mean? His statement sounds so grand, like he's readying the troops for battle and not just to sit around a lecture hall while this rather odd looking little man yammers away in Farsi.

Since I'm on record elsewhere here as saying that I think the whole thing is a novelty act (at least here in the US) I'll limit my further comments to the 1st Amendment issue, which I'm pleased to see has been clarified.

The US government does not have to allow Ahmadinejad the right to go anywhere but the UN I think under the terms of our agreement with the UN. I could be wrong about that, I don't know what the limits are. So that would be the question. Could the US government prevent him from traveling to Columbia to speak? Does he have some 1st Amendment protection once he's on the ground here?

Martin Vennard said...

Hi, I work for BBC World Service radio in London and today (Monday 24th September) between 1pm and 2pm East Coast Time in the States we will be discussing in our programme, World Have Your Say, whether the Iranian president should be allowed to visit Ground Zero. If you would like to take part in the radio discussion please call me at +442075570635 or email me your phone numbers at

Many thanks
Martin Vennard
BBC World Service radio.

Paul Scott said...

Let the crazy man talk.

I am really having issue grasping the problem here. I mean what is the down side?

Clearly, Ahmadinejad is not going to come and give compelling arguments for his ideas. He is also not going to be speaking to a wider audience that is actually receptive to his ideas by speaking at Columbia.

There is no risk of a "legitimizing" argument. He is already the President of Iran. Speaking at Columbia does not give him any additional clout.

As I see it, the biggest down side here is that a lot of Americans currently unaware of Ahmadinejad's views (or even that he is President of Iran) will become fearful that a man with his purported agenda has real power and will soon have nuclear weapons. This in turn could give support to Cheaney's plans to invade (or more precisely, to engage militarily to prevent proliferation).

The most likely result of his speaking at Columbia is - well - nothing. The second most likely result is that some people not aware of Ahmadinejad become aware and are appalled that a national leader of an important nation could hold such views.

Also, as with most "spectacle" events (and this is certainly what we have here, as no legitimate academic debate is going to take place), the most sensible strategy (and also the one never employed) is to ignore it. Or go out and organize it's being ignored. Stopping and yelling about it is just giving it yet more attention.

Sobek said...

"There is no risk of a 'legitimizing' argument."

I disagree. A few days ago a commenter on this blog essentially defended Ahmadinejad. To the extent Ahmadinejad can portray himself as sane and the victim of western imperialism -- and he is neither -- he can drum up support among people who are inclined to believe the worst about the west, and the best about vicious dictatorships.

Such support in turn may translate into costing human lives. If in the future it becomes necessary for the U.S. to invade (or anyone else, but let's be realistic here), and if the U.S. pulls its punches for public relations purposes, that will have a tendency to draw out the conflict, prolonging misery and suffering that could be avoided if the world presents a united front against Iranian nuclear weapons.

I hate the idea of war, but I recognize it is sometimes necessary. When it becomes so, America should end it as quickly and decisively as possible, to minimize the destruction. Allowing Ahmadinejad a U.S. forum to garner support from anti-American forces in Europe and elsewhere is inherently inimical to that goal.

Garth Sullivan said...

Michelle Bachelet, President of the Republic of Chile

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (CC' 76), President of the Republic of Estonia

Mikheil Saakashvili (LAW' 94), President of the Republic of Georgia

Željko Komšić, Presidency Chairman of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh

Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, President of the Republic of Malawi

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, President of Turkmenistan

No doubt some may find one of the above speakers objectionable for on reason or another, but it is clear that the President of Iran fits in with this group.

I agree with Columbia's decision to back to the hilt the suggestion of any faculty member to invite speakers.

There is no harm in listening to any man talk.

It is precisely at times like these that a hard line must be taken against censorship.

Sobek said...

"There is no harm in listening to any man talk."

Neville Chamberlain let Germany talk his people into devastating pacifism that cost millions of lives. Maybe you and I have different definitions of the word "harm."

Lawler Walken said...

ok, I can now answer my own question: could the US government have restricted Ahmadinejad to the UN grounds only and the answer is yes.

It's interesting that the government chose not to do that, as fascist as we all know the Bush administration is about most things (another joke alert).

Unknown said...

"There is no harm in listening to any man talk."

I would only add to Sobek's apt rejoinder that it's funny how free-speech fetishists are so quick to trivialize concerns about the dangers of certain kinds of speech. If speech is so impotent, why have we gone to such lengths to protect it?

Unknown said...

Professor Dorf,

As a 1L whose decision to enroll at CLS was influenced by the talent and depth of its public intellectuals such as yourself, I am disappointed in your shallow and mediocre treatment of the Ahmadinejad event.

I can see why Dean Schizer and President Bollinger must, out of prostration to influential alumni, temper their grudging deference to free speech principles with distended and exaggerated expressions of disgust for Ahmadinejad and all he stands for. But I would have expected a more independent approach from an tenured professor.

Specifically, I'm referring to the reductive and simplistic characterization of Ahmadinejad as "someone who has taken extremely dangerous actions". Can you back this up without resorting to vague FoxNews platitudes such as his "support for terrorism" and "oppression of women"? I think that if you dig deeper and apply the same analytical tools which have distinguished yourself as a leading constitutional scholar, you'll see that Ahmadinejad merely opposes Zionism (a position taken by the majority of Columbia's faculty), occasionally trades with Hezbollah (a resistance organization recognized as a terrorist group by only 6 countries, two of them the US/Israel, and two designating only the security wing), and has supported numereous progressive women's rights issues, including relaxing state restrictions on Hijab and university admissions. His nuclear armament is hardly unjustifiable given the regional instability, and his Holocaust revisionism, though exaggerated in the press, is ultimately a propagandistic defense to a perceived moral exceptionalism. It might be dishonorable, but it is hardly "dangerous". He has not contributed to any anti-gay legislation in Iran; the criminal treatment of homosexuals is a result of cultural norms established by the Ayatollah which he is basically powerless to change.

If your blog is meant to be a rant of your prejudices, so be it. But insofar as you intend to put forth critical analyses of issues involving the Columbia community, is it too much to expect a thoughtfulness and balance?


Paul Scott said...

"Yourself" is reflexive.

I also apologize to sobek. I was apparently wrong to assume you were foolish in thinking that Ahmadinejan might have a receptive audience at Columbia.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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