Dictators on Campus: Still Not a Free Speech Issue

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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.

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  1. Did Columbia University invite him or was it some head-up-the-ass student group’s idea?

    If the former I’m outraged. If the latter, I’m not a bit surprised and would personally approve his appearance.

  2. Has Haile Selassie come back yet?

  3. I’ve been told by people in the know that this guy can talk you into buying anything for a dollar.

    Which, as we all know, is the mark of a true leader.

  4. There is no free speech issue when a private institution provides a forum, or doesn’t, to anyone.

    There is an intelligence issue, and a prudence issue, when a private institution provides a forum to a murderous kleptocrat, of course, but not a free speech issue.

    Casting this as a free speech issue completely misses the point, at the invitation of those who do, in fact, want to provide aid to this murderous kleptocrat.

    My advice: decline this invitation. Write only about the lack of intelligence and prudence that went into providing him a forum, and completely ignore the “free speech” red herring.

  5. Colombia denied my request to speak at their commencement. They’re infringing on my right to free speech!

  6. His last name (father’s name) is Gebre-Mariam, (hence the G.) not Mariam. Ethiopians are usually referred to by their first names, though, as the last name is really just a patronymic.

  7. Columbia has been doing really well on this site recently. They get at least two stars for eminent domain, and one for choice in who to serve as a platform for.

  8. Mariam makes a good argument:

    I suspect that the story-telling session will not be the usual cakewalk. At Columbia, unlike his rubberstamp parliament, Zenawi will not be able to scowl at, browbeat, belittle or mock anyone; and unless Stigliz and company rig the Q&A session to give Zenawi only softball questions, he is going to get some heavy duty drubbing from students and faculty. I would wager to say that his speech will not be the usual soporific monologue; it will be a real “conversation” where he will be asked questions that will make him cringe and wince….

    Zenawi would rather go blind than face the naked truth about his atrocious record over the past two decades, but we are not afraid to confront his best dressed lies at the World Leaders Forum. At the end of the day on September 22, when the fog clears over Columbia, Zenawi would have walked off the stage at the Low Library as he walked on it: An emperor with new clothes! So I say: Rap on, Emperor. Rap on!

    Reminds me of what another fellow had to say a few years ago.

  9. Prepare for another onslaught of Ethiopia vs. Eritrea comments. (For the record, both are dictatorships.)

  10. Even in Columbia University campus, Meles will deny Ethiopians, if there are any, their right to freedom of speech in the following manner.

    When he moves from country to country on official visit, he is always accompanied by journalists from the government owned Ethiopian Television (the country has only one television station, which is government owned). These journalists have two jobs: (1) to record his actions and speeches that can be aired as propaganda, and (2) to capture on tape the actions and speeches of Ethiopians who speak ill of him, and then, send copies of these videotapes to the Ethiopian Security Service.

    The Ethiopian Security Service will, then, blacklist these Ethiopians. These Ethiopians will be harassed, tortured, imprisoned, or killed. So will be their relatives. Besides, their property will be confiscated with the pretext that they have not paid taxes properly.

    Meles has done this for the last 20 years. Every Ethiopian knows this tactic. As a result, in the presence of crews from the Ethiopian Television Service, which will definitely be in the forum, and other entourages, I think no Ethiopian will dare to speak his mind freely, even here in the USA, and even at Columbia University.

    1. When he moves from country to country on official visit, he is always accompanied by journalists from the government owned Ethiopian Television (the country has only one television station, which is government owned). These journalists have two jobs: (1) to record his actions and speeches that can be aired as propaganda, and (2) to capture on tape the actions and speeches of Ethiopians who speak ill of him, and then, send copies of these videotapes to the Ethiopian Security Service.

      I like the sound of this.

    2. But do they have free health care and 100% literacy?

  11. If demonstrating free speech is the goal, maybe they should invite a lot of Ethiopians to see how free speech works in practice.

  12. Wait, Ethiopia is a dictatorship? I remember in the 1980’s when dozens of industrialized countries sent airplanes full of food to Ethiopia. At that time, Israel brought airplanes full of Ethiopians to Israel and gave them citizenship. I can’t think of any other nation with a similar program for Ethiopians.

    1. At that time, Israel brought airplanes full of Ethiopians to Israel and gave them citizenship.

      Beta Israel are descendants of Jews who immigrated to Ethiopia in ancient times.

      1. Yeah, and I’m descended from Jews who were kicked out of the Iberian Peninsula shortly after the Moors lost control of it. What’s your point, Jason?

        1. I’m not sure what your original point was, so…

  13. How does a visitor from another country warrant First Amendment goodies?

    Sorry, but just because some tin-pot dictator managed to steal enough of his country’s piss-poor treasury to come here, doesn’t mean he has the “right” to be heard by a bunch of soft-headed, easily-led college kids.

    I said pretty much the above when Aquavelvalad came here to shill for Iran, and I’ll say it every time some fuckstain with a diplomatic badge tromps around spreading their bullshit here.

    Okay, now I await the catcalls of “you’re not a real believer” and so forth. Fire away. But this fucker has no more “right” to a podium than I do. That shit has to be granted; it’s not automatic.

    1. Colombia does, however, have the right to offer it to him if they are so foolishly inclined.

      Their podium, their rules.

      Now, I can buy the argument that fostering the liberal arts necessarily means understand the “other guys” point of view, and I like the idea of some two bit dictator being discomforted by tough questions.

      But that doesn’t mean I have to respect this guy or feel that he should be invited.

      1. I’m with you on Columbia’s right to host this piece of shit, as you say, if they are so foolishly inclined.

        What I’m saying is, he doesn’t have a right to speak here in general. He is GRANTED that, but it’s not his by default.

        Not that I have any more respect for Ann Coulter than this fuckhead dictator, but was SHE granted the same courtesy to speak unmolested by whiny liberal college douchebags? No, she wasn’t, but she has one advantage over EthiopiaMan: She automatically gets First Amendment rights by birthright.

        Some on here will scoff at that, but would you scoffers grant a foreign visitor automatic* Second Amendment rights? I wouldn’t.

        * or semi-automatic, for that matter.

        1. “Some on here will scoff at that, but would you scoffers grant a foreign visitor automatic* Second Amendment rights?”

          The government can’t grant something that it is explicitly constrained from taking away. The first is explicitly described as a restriction on government.

          1. Okay, poor phrasing on my part. But the gist, I stand by.

        2. Some libertarians don’t see the Constitution as the source of rights…

          1. It’s not the source, but it is the source laid out on paper.

            If Zenawi were to extend those rights to his subjects, I’d be in favor of his appearance on our turf. You get what you dish out.

        3. “Some on here will scoff at that, but would you scoffers grant a foreign visitor automatic* Second Amendment rights?”

          We will sell them $60 billion worth of the really good stuff, jets, helicopters, etc.

  14. Can I throw a shoe at him?

  15. Since when were American universities vanguards or defenders of free speech?

  16. The university can do whatever it wants, but IMO, this is one of those areas where the legal thing to do isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

    Why not set aside the issue of free speech as decided? Everyone is free to speak. The question is whther it is moral to invite him to speak is an entirely separate one. I can totsally see room for either argument.

    One could argue, from a libertarian perspective, that the more speech the better, so why not let him come.
    The only *moral* issue I would have with it is if he was getting paid for the appearance.

    1. I disagree. Shine a spotlight on it. Take it on right out in the open.

  17. How can you sit there and pretend to believe in the marketplace of ideas, then be angry that somebody expressing unpopular speech is given a forum? Additional speech is good, even from madmen. Free speech doesn’t mean anything if we limit it to what we already believe is acceptable and whitewash the rest.

    1. Lamar, I don’t see a disconnect here. Zenawi isn’t a US citizen; he’s a guest.

      I wouldn’t suggest a citizen not be allowed to speak. Ever. Even the most hate-filled, insanity-ridden prick/bitch. Nor would I tell a college – or any other venue – they can’t allow any speaker to pontificate/spread propaganda. That is not what I’m suggesting here at all – I’m saying Zenawi doesn’t have the automatic right to come here and spew from his piehole.

      1. “I’m saying Zenawi doesn’t have the automatic right to come here and spew from his piehole.”

        But Columbia has the right to invite his spewing piehole (visa questions aside), and we’re better off for it.

  18. If this man were not a “leader” or “president” or “dictator” and still committed the crimes for which he is accused, would he still be able to freely travel and give speeches?

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