For a nation birthed on the concept of free speech, we seem to have a very poor understanding of the concept. Jonah Goldberg notices this in his NRO column today, and uses the case of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia to make the point:
But here’s the thing, whether you favored or opposed the teeny dictator’s lecture: Free speech had nothing to do with it.
You have to stay on your toes, like Ahmadinejad at a urinal, to grasp this point since it’s so often confused in our public discourse: Free-speech rights aren’t violated when private institutions deny speech in their name. My free-speech rights have not been denied by the fact that for years the Democratic National Committee has refused to invite me to speak at its confabs. Nor would it be censorship if this newspaper dropped my column. Freedom of speech also includes the right not to say something.
In other words, had Columbia denied Ahmadinejad a platform, it would have been exercising freedom of speech just as much as it was when it invited him to give his prison-house philosopher spiel.
People keep muddying the central point of free speech, which is a right because of its non-confiscatory, natural state of humanity. Speaking one's mind requires no subsidy, no government grant. It is an innate, natural right springing from the central spirit of what it means to be a sapient human. It follows rationally from acknowledging that men and women have their own thoughts and values, and any government which seeks to encumber them would be tyrannical on its face.
People lose the meaning of its non-confiscatory nature. Freedom of speech does not confer upon anyone the right to be published. Nor does it impose on other citizens the duty to listen or to acknowledge the speech. Most importantly, it does not grant an immunity from criticism for the speech one gives -- because that would also constrain free speech.
Publication is another form of speech, and it carries with it the exposure to criticism that anyone assumes when they speak publicly. That's what people missed in the Ahmadinejad speech. Columbia University in essence published Ahmadinejad's speech by inviting him to speak from their dais, even if they hid their logos on the stage during his appearance. They freely associated their academic credibility with Ahmadinejad's lunatic ravings on Holocaust denial and his preference for the extinction of Israel. And they deserved the criticism they received for doing so, as well as for providing a platform for a leader of a terror-supporting state whose resources at the moment go to killing American soldiers.
The same holds true for Hofstra Law School's invitation to Lynne Stewart to speak at a forum on legal ethics. A jury convicted Stewart on five counts of providing material support to terrorism, specifically passing along messages from the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, to assassinate Hosni Mubarak and conduct other terrorist actions. Stewart remains free on bail while appealing her sentence, and she has the right to speek freely about her sense of ethics. That doesn't entitle her to have her views published by Hofstra, and their decision to provide her that platform places them in the position of endorsing her point of view, whether they agree to it or not. That's the point that my friend Scott Johnson tried to make in a shout-fest on Hannity & Colmes last night, with a panel that clearly could not grasp the distinction between free speech and the responsibilities that come with publication.
Denying Stewart a platform at Hofstra would not impede her right to free speech. Neither would disinviting Ahmadinejad from Columbia. Both have the right to speak their minds anywhere they can freely access. The fact that Columbia and Hofstra chose to associate themselves with terrorist sympathizers leaves them both open for criticism from others exercizing their own freedom to speak. That criticism does not attack free speech but celebrates it, as well as demanding some long-overdue accountability to the act of publication.