Dictators on Campus: Still Not a Free Speech Issue


Over at the Huffington Post, Political Science professor Alemayehu G. Mariam argues that Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi's upcoming talk at Columbia University is in fact a free speech issue, a notion that I tried to debunk last week. Mariam is no Zenawi supporter—he's a passionate and extremely well-versed opponent of Ethiopia's apparent president-for life, and his description of the country's ruination under Zenawi is pretty enraging (especially when you consider how much the United States has done to prop up his regime).

Yet Mariam defends Columbia's invitation, arguing that free speech should be treated as a kind of categorical imperative, existing outside the messy real world of politics and human rights:

But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." I underscore the words "everyone" and "regardless of frontiers."

No one's arguing that the United States government—a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—has jeopardized Meles Zenawi's right to free speech. Neither has anyone argued that it should. The applicable free speech issue here is instead whether American universities, which should be society's vanguards of free speech, are actually advancing free speech by valorizing those who have made a political career out of taking it away from others.

I think the answer is no, but my notion of free speech is different from Mariam's. He believes that free speech is a universal right, but also a pretext for teaching people things:

I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot.

By this logic, the more oppressive a dictator is, the more urgent it is for us to use the powers of "free speech" to educate or perhaps even pacify him. Dictators, however, realize that free speech is, in fact, a civil liberty essential to any free society, which is probably why they're none too fond of the concept.