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.