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Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Learn


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew into New York City Saturday. He had come to the United States to speak before the UN General Assembly’s opening session this week. Under agreement with the UN, the United States as the host country for the UN headquarters cannot refuse to issue a visa to heads of state or other officials who come to the UN to speak. However, the State Department can and does impose a maximum travel radius on representatives of countries deemed unfriendly. Moreover, within the allowed radius, police departments may refuse requests, on the basis of security concerns, to go to specific destinations.

On Monday morning–September 24–The New York Daily News front page was taken up with a picture of President Ahmadinejad and four words, all in capital letters: The EVIL HAS LANDED. The objection so voiced in print was part of the wide-spread protest against a speaking engagement at Columbia University by the Iranian president.

The invitation tendered by Columbia was freely extended and freely accepted, with no preconditions or restrictions. Despite some vociferous objections to allowing an individual who denies that the Holocaust happened and has said that Israel should disappear from the map, the venue was most appropriate. To quote the great 19th century Roman Catholic prelate-scholar, John Henry Cardinal Newman, a university is a “School of Universal Learning [implying] the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot.Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. [A] University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country” (The Idea of a University).

Of course, if “communication and circulation of thought” justifies giving Ahmadinejad a forum, the question comes as to whether there is any limitations on free speech in a university setting. Constitutionally, the Supreme Court has carved out some limits on general First Amendment rights, but the Court, as far as I am aware, has not directed such limits to universities.

Nonetheless, I suggest that there is at least one limit: courtesy to a guest, especially when the guest has been invited, in part, because his views are known to be contrary to those of the institutions. It is this limit that Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, violated in his rather extended remarks delivered before President Ahmadinejad said a word.

Protesting that he was but a university professor who happened also to be a university president, Bollinger started by reminding the audience that to listen to someone in no way implies acceptance or an endorsement of what is said–which includes both Columbia’s guest and those demonstrating against his presence on the university campus. Bollinger also urged his listeners to never retreat when confronted with ideas that one detests but to take them on.

All that was fair game and needed to be said. Bollinger then presented a list of grievances and accusations against internal policies and practices of the Iranian state as well as the foreign policies of the Islamic Republic. This too, was within bounds, particularly since Bollinger started by reminding Ahmadinejad that his country had arrested, imprisoned, and only recently released some Iranian-American academics visiting Iran, including members of Columbia’s faculty. (At least one academic is still under house arrest in Iran.) But then President Bollinger veered into a personal attack, calling Ahmadinejad “a petty and cruel dictator.”

President Bollinger is perfectly free to hold that opinion and to express it–which he did directly to the Iranian president. Yet, the verbal assault on the visitor seemed extremely crude and, arguably, not factual. Granted that all candidates for political office in Iran are subject to a vetting process, Iranians seem to feel that they have (few?) real choices when they participate in general elections for president, parliament, and “local” government.

Ahmadinejad’s reaction was to chide Bollinger for, in effect, being rude. Bollinger, in my view, accomplished nothing by delivering his verbal assault before Ahmadinejad spoke other than confirm for Iranians that, even in its universities, America is an intolerant society.

For those who decided to skip the broadcast of the speech (carried partially on CNN and completely by Fox News), the general themes that are Ahmadinejad’s stock in trade were present: Palestine-Israel, U.S. dominance, nuclear energy/weapons, sanction regimes (e.g., spare parts for commercial airliners), and Iran as a victim of terror. He also, without naming the United States, rejected the authenticity of “freedom” in what he termed “bullying powers” whose governments spy on citizens’ telephone conversations, r try to undermine ancient cultures, or try to prevent other countries from making scientific advances (obviously referring to nuclear energy development). In fact, running throughout the speech was a noticeable emphasis on science and the scientific method as an instrument for improving people’s lives

Those were most of the main points in Ahmadinejad’s prepared remarks. But one issue deserves additional comment: Ahmadinejad’s position on the Holocaust.

Columbia the Iranian president did not claim that the Holocaust never happened. He expressed concern that the prevalent attitude that further research on the Holocaust is not needed violates the principles of intellectual and academic enquiry. Nothing is so extensively investigated, he said, that we can be sure that no further knowledge or fresh perspectives will be forthcoming.

Listening carefully to the speech and the answers to questions that the audience posed, it is possible to unravel Ahmadinejad’s line of thought. He seems to assume that the methodology of learning is the same regardless of the subject–and that is the scientific mode of enquiry that is never conclusive, never final, always open to revision and correction. The other distinguishing feature of scientific enquiry is the ability of other scientists to replicate experiments and confirm the results.

But there is another methodology, one that Ahmadinejad ignores even though it pertains to non-scientific enquiries. This “humanistic” methodology is an inductive process that assimilates reports of events and perspectives of individuals to build a holistic description (or as nearly holistic as possible) of an event. Unlike a scientific experiment in which variables can be frozen and unfrozen as the experiment runs, life cannot be frozen or exactly replicated because the context of the original event can never be recovered

In terms of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad tries to apply to a historical event that cannot be replicated the same standard that scientific enquiry yields–contingent consensus on what is “reality” based on the present state of knowledge. But in humanistic events, once they happen, they cannot be altered. At best, they can be thoroughly investigated and recorded to serve as a warning for future generations.

And although I do not believe President Ahmadinejad’s comments were directed to this point, there is one aspect of the Holocaust that must not be closed off. That is the questioning of the conditions that should have served as warning signs–in history, sociology, and politics–and tracking these back as far as possible.

Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur are recent reminders that we have not yet escaped the possibility of another Holocaust. More study on how to sustain the veneer of “civilized” behavior is needed–and soon.

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at


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