Freedom of speech is content neutral

No matter how abhorrent the content of speech, it still deserves the freedom to be expressed.

Chelsey Perkins

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke yesterday at Columbia University as part of its World Leaders Forum despite an outpouring of disgust by many public officials and, particularly, FOX News. Ahmadinejad is an outspoken critic of America, denies the Holocaust and supports Hezbollah, which is considered to be a terrorist organization, just to name a few reasons why people feel it is wrong to provide him with a platform at an American university.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger says that he was not providing Ahmadinejad with a platform, but rather was giving students and staff an opportunity to ask the leader questions about nuclear power or Iran’s involvement in Iraq, for example.

As I thought about this situation, of course only one thing flashed in my mind: the freedom of speech. In a mass media law class I took last semester, we learned the Supreme Court has ruled that speech should not be censored in this country, no matter how abhorrent we might find it to be.

What kind of message would we be sending to Ahmadinejad by not allowing him to speak in the “Land of the Free,” when people of Iran are jailed, tortured and probably killed for expressing dissenting opinions? If the Iranian people are not able to question their own president, why not allow Americans who have the right to free speech grill him in a public forum?

It isn’t as though he indoctrinated all of those present at the forum with his beliefs. Columbia alum Ted Graske told FOX News that “students are not going to learn anything, they’re going to hear a lot of diatribe against George W. Bush, against American imperialism, against Israel. They’re not going to get any good, solid answers.”

It is true that Ahmadinejad certainly lied – he denied the existence of homosexuals in Iran, for example – but that does not mean there is no learning from the experience. And if FOX News wants to talk about diatribe, they should take a look at some of their own. FOX News commentator Bill O’Reilly, while condemning Ahmadinejad’s visit, said he was tired of free speech. The irony is he exercised his right of free speech to say that. If O’Reilly’s own diatribes were to be censored, he might feel differently.

Those who opposed allowing Ahmadinejad to speak used Columbia’s banning of the ROTC on campus and its decision not to invite back Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen, as fuel to discredit Bollinger’s decisions.

I personally do not understand what the banning of the ROTC has to do with anything, as Columbia is a private university, but for once, I might actually agree with FOX News. I do not think it is right to deny Gilchrist the opportunity to speak on campus, no matter how detestable I find his views to be. If Columbia is going to use the freedom of speech as the reasoning behind allowing Ahmadinejad, then they should also be allowing Gilchrist to exercise those rights.

Maybe Bollinger was wrong to invite Ahmadinejad on campus, but to stop him from speaking after he accepted the invitation would only have undermined the liberty we enjoy in this country to ask the tough questions, questions that Iranians unfortunately cannot ask themselves.

Chelsey Perkins welcomes comments at [email protected]