At his inauguration, newly installed University President Mark Schlissel spoke highly of the need for tolerating the ideas we hate, criticizing recent trends of controversial speakers being disinvited from college campuses. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, touched on the same subject at his commencement speech at Harvard University this year, calling student and faculty pushback against figures like Condoleezza Rice manifestations of “tyrannical tendencies” that shut down dissent. Bloomberg and Schlissel both mentioned the shouting down of Ray Kelly, former New York City police commissioner, at Brown University, whose controversial affiliation with racial profiling and stop-and-frisk led to widespread protest.
Bloomberg and Schlissel — Brown’s provost at the time — derided the behavior of students in failing to let Kelly speak, describing these and other actions as detrimental to the free marketplace of ideas on college campuses. Without having our favored ideas challenged, Schlissel argued, we become intellectually stunted, uncritical and a failure as students and educators. President Schlissel demanded that students be exposed to differing ideas to see the other side of any argument, even if the other side is horrendous and despicable. To illustrate, he described an event in the ’60s at which Ross Barnett, segregationist and white supremacist Mississippi governor, came to Hill Auditorium. He was booed and challenged by students, but the man was allowed to speak.
In 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger — formerly of the University of Michigan — invited then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum. Bollinger was chastised by then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for inviting Ahmadinejad, and massive protests were held on campus and throughout New York City opposing the brutal dictator.
But the man was allowed to speak.
Ahmadinejad belittled homosexuality, questioned the history of the Holocaust and attacked U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. Mr. Ahmadinejad, I pause to point out, also believes that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth.
Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, called the event a part of Columbia’s tradition for “robust debate” and invoked principles like free speech and critical thought in explaining his decision to follow through with the speech. These are ideas directly in opposition to our fundamental values, yet they are ideas nonetheless. According to Schlissel’s logic, even this genocidal despot should get a chance to speak if invited. (It should be noted that Bloomberg didn’t attend the speech but refused to criticize Columbia for inviting Ahmadinejad).
This is a commendable position to take, showing a true commitment to free speech and open debate. I despise the ideas of people like Ahmadinejad and Barnett, and I feel similarly about the policies of Ray Kelly and Condoleezza Rice, but they are just as entitled to their right to speak as anyone I agree with. To paraphrase Schlissel, if ideas go unchallenged, education fails.
On that logic, President Schlissel, I’m compelled to ask: what about freedom of expression for students?
During last year’s controversial debate over divestment from Israel, pro-Israel student groups took to the pages of the Daily and widespread e-mail lists to work on shutting down the debate. Students wrote under the veil of “safe spaces” and “meaningful dialogue” in an attempt to silence pro-Palestinian groups. At the same time, student government sidestepped the issue entirely by calling student activists threatening.
This is the exact behavior that Schlissel condemned in his speech, calling student self-censorship one of the major challenges in addressing open and free debates. Dozens of students across campus were targeted for their involvement in pro-Palestinian activism and had their voices unfairly stifled under labels like anti-semitic and violent. Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones and E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, didn’t take campus-wide action to protect these voices until the debate itself was nearly over, doing so only by sending out a short e-mail.
Down the road, President Schlissel will be asked to stand for student free speech in protest of any number of controversies, Israel sure to be among them. If the man is to be taken at his word, he must proactively stand for students to speak freely and openly in the face of intimidation and bullying. A nicely worded e-mail about tolerance will not suffice.
Schlissel cannot just advocate for free speech for war criminals and racists while surrounded by applauding luminaries. He must be an advocate for each and every student to express their voice, especially in the face of overwhelming criticism.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.