When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University yesterday, he did not emerge with the "propaganda victory" that the neocon pundit Bill Kristol assured us he would receive. He didn't seem to be having fun either. Instead, he had to listen while Columbia President Lee Bollinger lambasted him for the terrible state of civil liberties in Iran: the executions, the political prisoners, the persecution of homosexuals. Bollinger also questioned Iran's foreign policy—sometimes skating past the province of the proven, but never beyond the realm of legitimate inquiries—and he challenged the Iranian for suggesting the Holocaust is a "myth." Agence France-Presse called the introduction "a humiliating and public dressing down."
And then, after presenting his point of view, Ahmadinejad faced frequently hostile questions from the audience. Immediately before the Columbia speech, he had spoken via satellite to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he also had to answer audience questions. Before that he appeared on 60 Minutes, where he had faced still more questions. For a few days in September, the president of a repressive religious regime actually had to engage his critics.
No wonder the hawks were up in arms. For months Kristol and company have been telling us that engaging Iran is a dreadful, futile mistake. When they complained about Columbia's decision to let that country's president speak on campus, they were simply continuing this crippling inability to distinguish conversation from surrender. Maybe they were genuinely afraid that this would be a PR triumph for Ahmadinejad, and maybe they just didn't like the idea of a pause for reflection as they steamroll us to war. Either way, they were wrong.
Bollinger's critics didn't restrict themselves to complaining. The speaker of the New York Assembly, Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), has suggested the state could cut back its assistance to the university to punish it for hosting the Iranian. As it happens, I'd like to see that support slashed anyway, in part because—as Silver's threat demonstrates—such money often comes with strings attached. But what freedom-loving American can help but be repelled at the impulse behind Silver's proposal, this idea that the government should use the power of the purse to shut down a discussion it dislikes? Who can help but be repelled at the implication that Columbia's students can't hold their own in a debate with the president of Iran?
Interviewed by The New York Sun, Silver explained his position. "What makes it more outrageous is the fact that some dean yesterday said he would have invited Adolf Hitler," he said. "It's totally outrageous. This is not a matter of academic freedom. This is a matter of legitimizing people, one who was the perpetrator of the Holocaust and one who denies its existence." I prefer the attitude of the Jewish students who turned out to listen to their Iranian visitor, to ask him questions, and to boo and jeer when they disapproved of what he was saying. If you saw C-Span's abbreviated coverage of the event, you may have noticed the many yarmulkes adorning heads in the audience. I doubt the people who wore them admire Ahmadinejad any more than Silver did. But they apparently understand that the solution to bad speech is more speech, and that even bad speech can be valuable. In response to one query, about the mistreatment of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad claimed that there simply are no gays in his country: "In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you that we have it." Anyone listening to that lie learned a lot about Iranian society. Ahmadinejad himself may have learned a thing or two from the laughter that swept the room after his answer.
Silver isn't the only politician looking for ways to punish Columbia. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) tried to juice up his bottom-tier presidential campaign by announcing he'd "introduce legislation in Congress to disqualify Columbia University from any future federal support." Another Republican contender, Mitt Romney, grandstanded even more shamelessly, proclaiming that the Iranian shouldn't have received an entry visa in the first place. If you suspected that Silver and Hunter represent just a tiny sliver of the electorate, Romney's statement should give you pause. Romney isn't an ordinary flesh-and-blood candidate, after all; he's a machine calibrated to say whatever is most likely to emerge from a focus group of Republican primary voters.
The most desperate attacks on Columbia have charged the institution with hypocrisy. One argument—Kristol trots it out, and so do John McCain and The Wall Street Journal—faults the school for allowing Ahmadinejad to speak while barring ROTC from campus. The two policies might have been comparable, I guess, if Ahmadinejad had used his time to train the audience for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Others note that the Columbia Political Union just cancelled its plans to have Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrest speak at the university. That might have been damning if the Columbia Political Union had sponsored Ahmadinejad's talk, but the latter was a project of the School of International and Public Affairs, an entirely different organization.
But even if the Political Union had run yesterday's event, so what? The organizers would be hypocrites, sure, but that would prove only that they acted spinelessly when Gilchrest's speech was at stake, not that they acted improperly when inviting the president of Iran.
One more critic—Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League—has called Columbia's decision "a perversion of the concept of freedom of speech," declaring, "There's no requirement, no moral imperative, to give him a platform that he will not give [his opponents] in Tehran." Foxman is right, to an extent. President Ahmadinejad does not have a right to give a lecture at Columbia, and Columbia does not have a duty to let him in. Columbia does not have a right to receive our tax dollars, either, and politicians do not have a duty to subsidize it. If you're a libertarian looking for a loophole, a reason you shouldn't feel obliged to defend the event, it's not hard to find one. The First Amendment is not at issue here.
But free speech is at issue, because this tempest gets to the heart of a key argument for the open marketplace of ideas: the idea that hearing what other people have to say and confronting their ideas is good, and that doing so makes us not weaker but stronger. "This event has nothing whatsoever to do with any rights of the speaker," Bollinger said as he introduced his guest, "but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves."
That is why the petty tyrant who spoke at Columbia emerged bruised instead of beaming. Because the people who posed questions were free to ask those questions, and because they were free to hear his answers. They had an enormous opportunity, and they made the most of it. Only a coward would see such an opening and fear catastrophe.
Jesse Walker is the managing editor of reason.