Ugly Speech, Ugly Speakers, But It’s all Free

Free speech is often ugly, vile, abhorrent. That we protect vile speech is how we know we’re free.

Iran’s president Ahmadinejad comes to the US and speaks at Columbia University. Many say he shouldn’t have been allowed to speak. I believe firmly we need to hear from all countries, no matter how much we dislike what they do or how much harm they mean us and our friends. Closing our ears only breeds ignorance. So bring Ahmadinejad on, let him talk.

The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, in introducing Ahmadinejad today, listed the speaker’s sins. Bollinger called Ahmadinejad a “petty and cruel dictator” and said Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust makes him look “simply ridiculous.”

Bollinger gets to have free speech too. I doubt he would have said such tough things about a high Chinese government official, despite that government’s despotism. We think China’s OK, because it’s a big market. And they own half of America, so we better not piss them off.

What if George Bush came to speak at Columbia? Would Bollinger say in his intro, “your continued insistence that Saddam Hussein played a role in 9/11 makes you simply ridiculous?”

Now, I’m not comparing Bush to Ahmadinejad. I’m talking about how Bollinger is teeing up a bad guy, and I’m wanting us to think about what it would be like if somebody were to call Bush on his just plain old lie about Iraq. Nor am I comparing the Holocaust to Hussein’s Iraq, although Hussein was a smaller version of Hitler. Denying the Holocaust is ignorant, insulting, outrageous. But it’s free speech, and we need to let even appalling speech be free.

What do you think? Should Ahmadinejad have been allowed to speak at Columbia? Was Bollinger right in vilifying his invited guest rather than introducing him? Was Bollinger just covering his butt because he’d invited a bad guy to speak at his university? What are your thoughts?