I would not be as bothered by Columbia University’s decision to host Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if Columbia and other universities had a consistent policy toward those they invite to speak and the rules applied equally to conservatives and liberals; to totalitarian dictators and to advocates for freedom and tolerance.
Any conservative who has ever tried, or actually succeeded, in speaking on the campus of predominately liberal academic institutions knows it can resemble to some extent the struggle experienced by African-Americans when they attempted to desegregate lunch counters in the South during the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1980s, I spoke at universities from Smith College in the East to the University of California at Davis in the West. At Smith, lesbians sat in the front row kissing each other while the rest of the crowd shouted so loud no one could hear me (NPR’s Nina Totenberg witnessed the riotous behavior, prompting me to remark, “I hope you’re getting this on tape, Nina, because this is what liberals mean by tolerance.”).
Former U.S.News & World Report columnist John Leo has been among the chroniclers of the demise of free speech on many college campuses. Writing in last winter’s issue of the publication City Journal, Mr. Leo noted that Columbia University officials prevented a large crowd from hearing Walid Shoebat, a former PLO terrorist who is now an anti-jihadist. The reason given was security, which as Mr. Leo pointed out is a frequent excuse for restricting speech. Had Mr. Shoebat remained a PLO terrorist, Columbia might have allowed the students in, because anti-Jewish rhetoric of the kind Mr. Ahmadinejad delivers always seems welcome on too many campuses. Only Columbia students and 20 guests were allowed to hear Mr. Shoebat speak.
Why would Columbia expect Mr. Ahmadinejad to answer what they promised in advance would be “tough” questions? Have they not seen him interviewed by America’s best reporters? He doesn’t answer questions. He uses the interviews to lecture America and make his propaganda points. The exercise is useless, except to him because he scores points at home for “standing up to ‘the Great Satan,’ ” or whatever the preferred term du jour for the United States is at the moment.
Last October at Columbia, a mob of students stormed a stage, curtailing speeches by two members of the anti-illegal immigration group known as the Minutemen. The students shouted “They have no right to speak,” which was revealing, given the “academic freedom” argument used to defend liberal professors and their frequent anti-American rants when conservatives attempt to shut them up.
As John Leo wrote, “Campus opponents of [Rep.] Tom Tancredo, an illegal immigration foe, set off fire alarms at Georgetown to disrupt his planned speech, and their counterparts at Michigan State roughed up his student backers. Conservative activist David Horowitz, black conservative Star Parker, and Daniel Pipes, an outspoken critic of Islamism, frequently find themselves shouted down or disrupted on campus.” The number of instances involving censorship of conservatives on college campuses and denial of honorary degrees to people who don’t toe the liberal line could fill a book.
There is something else about Columbia’s decision to admit Mr. Ahmadinejad and that is the notion that by exposing a tyrant and religious fanatic to a liberal arts campus — a man who believes he has been “called” to usher in Armageddon — might make him less genocidal and students and the rest of us more understanding. We understand he and his legion of murdering thugs wish to kill us and are contributing to the death of Americans in Iraq. What part of mass murder do they not understand at Columbia, or don’t they have time to study history these days? Mr. Ahmadinejad is probably using his visit to case our country, like a bank robber does before a big heist.
Before we allow more of our enemies into America and give them a freedom unknown in their own countries, we should at least demand reciprocity. Their president gets to speak in America? Our president gets to speak in Iran. Their president has access to our media? Our president should have access to their media. And how about, for every liberal who gets to speak on campus, the school must also invite a conservative?
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.