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After his strange speech at the United Nations, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expected to take a brief speaking tour in the US to shore up his image. One of the venues for that effort was Columbia University, which invited the Iranian president to speak at its World Leaders Forum at the request of its dean of international and public affairs, Lisa Anderson. Yesterday, however, Columbia president Lee Bollinger canceled the invitation:
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bollinger said he canceled Mr. Ahmadinejad's invitation because he couldn't be certain it would "reflect the academic values that are the hallmark of a University event such as our World Leaders Forum." He told Ms. Anderson that Mr. Ahmadinejad could speak at the school of international and public affairs, just not as a part of the university-wide leader's forum.
Ms. Anderson's assistant cited an inability to arrange for proper security as the reason for the cancellation.
Mr. Bollinger told Ms. Anderson that while he finds Mr. Ahmadinejad's views "repugnant," she has the "right and responsibility to invite speakers whom she believes will add to the academic experience of our students."
The invitation sparked heated debate and outrage on campus and elsewhere because Mr. Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and the head of a state that sponsors terrorism. The brouhaha over Mr. Ahmadenijad's invitation has also spotlighted the confusion of many regarding if and how standards should be applied when universities decide whom to welcome to their campuses.
A professor at the school of public health, Judy Jacobson, said Ms. Anderson "didn't see what line she was crossing." When asked to clarify the substance of that line, Ms. Jacobson paused. "Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and inciter and I think that causes him to go far over the line," she said.
Bollinger's cancellation sent a mixed message, even for those who opposed Ahmadinejad's appearance at the university. By resting his objection on the specific forum, Bollinger didn't really take much of a stand on Ahmadinejad at all. Anderson still could have him speak on campus as part of a separate event at another time, a move that will probably mollify those who will see this cancellation as a threat to free debate in academia.
If Columbia's students and faculty believe that, then perhaps they will take the time to discuss freedom of speech in Iran with Ahmadinejad before they extend the next invitation. The Iranian government has begun closing dissident newspapers in the Islamic Republic, Reporters Without Borders announced less than a fortnight ago:
Reporters Without Borders today firmly condemned the closure of three leading reformist newspapers for an indefinite period. “This wave of censorship is totally unacceptable,” the press freedom organisation said. “Political repression is now compounding the judicial harassment that Iran’s journalists have been undergoing in recent weeks.”
The closure of the reformist daily Shargh and the monthlies Nameh and Hafez was ordered yesterday by the Commission for Authorising and Monitoring the Press, an offshoot of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
The commission claimed it had sent Shargh 70 warnings calling for its managing editor, Mehdi Rahmanian, to be replaced, but Rahmanian denied ever receiving the warnings in an interview for the German public radio station Deutsche Welle.
The closure was also reportedly prompted by a cartoon of horse and a donkey on a chessboard. As the donkey was outlined in white, it was seen as an allusion to a comment by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in which he said he had felt himself surrounded by light when he addressed the UN general assembly last year. The authorities therefore saw the cartoon as an unacceptable portrayal of Iran’s debate with the western countries about its nuclear programme.
Columbia, which houses one of the world's leading schools for journalists, might want to consider carefully the implications of inviting the leader of a country that oppresses its media and intimidates them into silence. That kind of leadership falls short not just of the World Leaders Forum but of university life in general, and Bollinger should have made that plain. Free speech does not hinge on inviting every millenial lunatic and tyrant to one's campus to give speeches and receive plaudits. Sometimes people have to take stands to tell oppressors that their crimes have consequences, even small ones such as becoming persona non grata in places where free speech is valued most of all.
Speaking of reporters and free speech, Eliana Johnson covered this story for the Sun, and Eliana is the daughter of Power Line's Scott Johnson, my good friend. She shows great promise as a journalist, with a straightforward style and engaging topics.Sphere It View blog reactions
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