So, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his public address with the full imprimatur of Columbia University after all this afternoon, while Lawrence Summers's invitation to make a private address to the Regents of University of California was publicly withdrawn with the full imprimatur of the University of California just last Wednesday. One might argue that this rapid change of heart on the part of prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States of America marks a turning point in their dedication to the principle of freedom of speech. One could, but one would probably be wrong. We shall see.
With that in mind, one should give credit where credit is due and congratulate Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, a noted First Amendment scholar, for finally having discovered his backbone, standing up to those who would suppress debate, and then just as forcefully engaging in debate on the dais with his guest. Meanwhile, one should note that U.C. Davis Professor Maureen Stanton, the hyper-active and voluble organizer of the effort to disinvite Summers to the private UC Regents affair, had no comment on the Iranian president's invitation, despite her publicly proclaimed commitment to core principles and Iran's well-documented record of subjugation of women, religious and ethnic minorities, and homosexuals.
I have no objection to Ahmadinejad being invited to Columbia or just about anywher else, provided there is opportunity to confront and question him, as there was today. The tape of the speech, and the exchanges, will be extremely useful in the war of ideas we are presently engaged in. He should have been allowed to lay a wreath at the site of World Trade Center, too. That picture, and any comments he would have made then, would have been of immense propaganda value in the future. Iran has never been named as a co-conspirator in the events of 9/11 and none of the hijackers was Iranian. Iran was, and remains, a dangerous rogue state, and a state-supporter of terrorism, but if Yassir Arafat could sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be allowed to pay his respects on behalf of the Iranian people at ground zero.
From where I sit, either you believe in the principle of free speech or you don't. Let the man speak. Voiciferously disagree with him, too. It seems to me that the record already shows that the more he does speak the more he plants his foot more firmly in his mouth and damages his cause. He certainly did himself few favors today.
(Having just finished this, I'm pleased to discover that Eugene Volokh and I are of similar opinions. He expresses it better than I do, perhaps. David Bernstein's dissent is worth noting as well)