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?

15 thoughts on “Ugly Speech, Ugly Speakers, But It’s all Free

  1. James says:

    How else would a cluck like Bollinger get his face in international news were it not for an opportunity to host a tyrant?

    Columbia is the Ivy League’s U of Northern Iowa.

  2. Kelly Groehler says:

    Jesus… is everything a photo opp?

    Talk about classy: As the whole bloody planet watches, we punch the guest for daring to RSVP for the party. I realize who it is we’re talking about, but didn’t that just sink us to his level?

    This is the U.S., so walk the talk and let him speak. In turn, it might do Americans some good to hear his words for ourselves – not regurgitated, cut-up, bite-sized snips the news feeds us. (Anyone bother to listen to the speech itself?)

    But for God’s sake, if you send the invitation, then exercise your right to free speech with some manners. Don’t validate the man’s premise about the U.S. with such rude behavior.

  3. Leslie says:

    I would really like you guys to cover Tunheim’s purchase of New School. I would think that a blog such as this would provide some insightful analysis. Would like to hear your transparent thoughts.

  4. For those who say, “Let the man speak?” — they, uh…did. Sure, the university’s prez twapped Amedinny in that less-than-friendly introduction, but I don’t see that as imposing on free speech.

    On a related note, how does a guy Amedinny get into the United States, logistically speaking? Where does his plane land? Who flies with him — or in planes around him? Does he just stay at the Radisson and have the continental breakfast? I bet he likes those apple danishes. I hope he gets to the MoMA.

  5. Kelly Groehler says:

    Mike – if you read the original post, it posited whether he should have been allowed to speak in the first place. I said yes, on the principle of free speech. I didn’t say we didn’t let the guy speak.

  6. Kelly Groehler says:

    P.S. – please pitch blog story ideas by clicking on that little “contact us” link in the upper right corner.

  7. Hi there Bruce, I thought I’d toss my two cents out there on this one.

    This sort of thing has been the topic of more than one of my recent rants, and I’m glad that I’m not the only one out there wondering about this. Like so many other things, free speech is widely abused these days. It has become something that people hide behind when they don’t want to admit that they’re jackasses. Ok, so that may be a bit harsh to say, but you get my drift.

    Too often now people are obsessed with the concept of freedom of speech as a “can I” issue that they completely toss aside the “should I” issue. In other words, just because you have the right to say something, you should always do your best to temper that right by asking yourself “should I be saying this.” This is similar to what you and I discussed before, namely it’s easy to put your mouth into gear before stopping to think about what you’re saying and why. What’s sad is that when people are caught in this trap, they then throw up the first amendment shield and claim that they have the right to say such things; no matter that what was said may have had terrible repercussions (or at a minimum made the person look like a fool).

    To get to the issue, Should Ahmadinejad have been allowed to speak at Columbia? Probably. I may not agree with it, but if it was an educational experience then I guess I can live with it. However, if it was allowed just so Bollinger could get his jab in there and get a once in a lifetime opportunity to rip on a world leader without fear of losing his head, then no, he should not have been allowed to speak at the school. If it was all just a charade instead of a learning opportunity, then it was certainly condemnable, and worse yet, if it was all done so Bollinger could prove to Ahmedinejad that we have free speech here in America, then shame on him.

    Again, this is a matter of “should I” not “can I” because Bollinger ended up looking very small and pathetic in saying what he did.

  8. I thought it humorous that we welcomed to Columbia, but then refused to let him take a peek at Ground Zero in NYC. Letting him get a good look at that hole in the ground would be eye-opening to a tyrant, wouldn’t it?

    It would be like saying, “Something like this happens and we find ways to invade countries, so don’t mess with us.”

    We missed a teaching opportunity, I think.

  9. bbenidt says:

    Ryan, good point about “should I?” I’ve been reading, with my journalism class at St. Thomas, a piece called “Host” from the Atlantic Monthly by David Foster Wallace, from a couple of years ago. It’s about a conservative talk radio host who’s been fired by several stations for using the “n-word” while he gripes about political correctness.

    Wallace writes a good distinction: “Like many other post-Limbaugh hosts, John Ziegler seems unable to differentiate between 1) cowardly, hypocritical acquiescence to the tyranny of Political Correctness and 2) judicious, compassionate caution about using words that cause pain to large groups of human beings, especially when there are several less upsetting words that can be used.”

    One of the main points in the article is that talk radio is all about stirring emotions to build an audience. That’s dead center to the issues on this blog, and yours, about saying things that are provocative and interesting to read without going over the edge and losing our humanity. Bollinger could have challenged Ahmadinejad without slamming him, and then the issues rather than the way things were said would have been the story.

    Same thing with the ad about General Patreus — many who oppose the war are unhappy that the flap over the ad’s wording has overwhelmed any debate about what the general actually said and whether real progress is being made in Iraq (The Washington Post reported yesterday evidence that he’d cooked the books on number of civilian casualties before and after the surge).

    Easy to shoot our mouths off — harder to listen to one another.

  10. Dave Jackson says:

    What would happen if Bush spoke at a university in a less-than-friendly country? How would he have been introduced? Would the same level of protest occurred?


  11. Kelly Groehler says:

    It likely would be worse – Bush already ellicits protests in other countries without even being there.

    But that doesn’t justify Bollinger’s behavior this week.

  12. James says:

    Bollinger was merely riding the fence by feigning outrage at Aquavelvajad.

    It was a reaction to placate Jewish/Israeli constituents, while endearing himself to anti-establishment liberals.

    I have to admit that Bollinger probably succeeded in a political sense. He will emerge get out unscathed and Columbia has elevated itself within the liberal orthodoxy. Well done, Bollie.

  13. Dave and Kelly, one really important thing to consider is that Bollinger specifically invited him to speak. It wasn’t like he showed up and had to deal with protesters that were unrelated to the event. He showed up and was berated by his host – the man who specifically invited him there. That makes the whole thing pretty unacceptable. I would think that while Bush would certainly be protested by people, that at least his host would treat him with some respect.

  14. Above is the link to see Bollinger’s speech. He not only reviews Ahmadinejad’s sins, but predicts that his guest speaker will not have the courage to answer tough questions and insults him about what he’s going to say before he says it.

  15. John Reinan says:

    I agree that there was nothing wrong in inviting a world leader to speak at a major university. That’s what major universities ought to exist for, among other things.

    But why not take the opportunity to have a real debate? Get someone up there — anti-Iran, anti-tyranny, anti-Islam, anti-Holocaust denier, whatever.

    Then let the two of them go at it.

    In the 50s, then-Vice President Nixon famously took on Khrushchev in an impromptu confrontation at a trade show that became famous as “the kitchen debate.”

    Invite Ahmadinejad to speak, but make him defend his views.

    I bemoan the loss of *real* debate in public life. The political “debates” are a joke: just a bunch of guys & gals spewing out the same practiced 30-second sound bites they’ve been using on the campaign trail.

    And debate on TV, such as it is, is just a yelling match — loudest one wins.

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