- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Columbia University’s welcome of Iran’s president may be a national focus this week, but the school is hardly a stranger to battles over free speech and contentious remarks.

An activist against illegal immigration was run off the stage by students last year at Columbia and his recent invitation back to the school was rescinded. The school became embroiled in a battle a few years ago after pro-Israel Jewish students complained of intimidation by pro-Palestinian professors, the New York Times reported.

John Leo, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, said he and other conservative speakers were essentially shut out by Columbia in 1998, after the school cited security concerns and limited the event to only those with Columbia badges. This prevented the bulk of the potential audience from attending, Mr. Leo said. The sponsoring group, Accuracy in Academia, withdrew the speakers and held the event in a park nearby.

“It was a form of censorship,” Mr. Leo said. “It was typical of Columbia.”

This week, Columbia was criticized for inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust, while banning the Reserve Officers Training Corps from campus.

“A huge double standard is being applied here. ROTC is not allowed on campus but a man who supports genocide is invited onto campus with full protections,” said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Others called that characterization inaccurate and said other schools should follow Columbia’s lead. “I’m hoping that it will be an example to other colleges to allow people who have controversial views to come and speak,” American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Marv Johnson said.

Columbia didn’t return calls yesterday, but John Coatsworth, the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, said in a recent interview with Fox News that nearly anyone is welcome to speak at the university, except leaders of countries at war with the United States.

The event yesterday was part of Columbia’s World Leaders Forum, which over the years has hosted, among others, the presidents of Ghana, Russia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Mozambique.

Last year, Hamilton College canceled an event that included Ward Churchill after the school was bombarded with angry calls, e-mails and threats regarding Mr. Churchill’s suggestions that many of the victims of September 11 deserved their fate. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter has been hounded off the stage at U.S. campuses and dodged pies hurled at her.

Some said the problem is clearly one-sided.

“All too often conservatives are denied a platform … or their speeches are ended through intimidation,” said Mr. Gardiner. “Yet platforms are given frequently to some of America’s worst enemies.”

Donald Downs, author of “Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus,” said he too supports Columbia for inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad, but that schools should be consistent. “Columbia has not been a hospitable place for all speech,” he said.

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