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Cheapening Free Speech

When Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, the most common refrain uttered by the University’s defenders was that, by doing so, the University was honoring the time-tested and proudly American principle of “free speech.” This country was founded upon a resistance to monarchical authority; a corollary to that impulse is the individual’s freedom to say or publish what he thinks. No one can quibble with this understanding of a bedrock American freedom. But where Columbia’s defenders went wrong was in their contention that protesting Ahmadinejad’s presence would contradict thi fundamentally American notion.

This has always been a silly and unsophisticated understanding of what the Bill of Rights actually says, or what the “spirit” of free speech actually means. No one has denied Ahmadinejad a platform for his odious views; indeed, just the day after his rant at Columbia he was given an international soapbox at the United Nations General Assembly. And the fact that his views on matters ranging from the existence of the Holocaust to the future existence of Israel are so well known further lays waste to the claim that not inviting Ahmadinejad would strike a blow to “free speech.”

What ultimately mattered was that a distinguished University lent credence to his views. Columbia’s physics department would never host a speech by a member of the Flat Earth Society, nor should it. People who think the moon landing was a hoax or that the Holocaust never happened have every right to utter and publish these beliefs; they have no “right” to a speaking engagement at an Ivy League School.

This crucial distinction is one that has long been lost on those people who organize events on college campuses. The latest example occurs across the pond at Oxford University, where the Oxford Union—the school’s prestigious debating society that counts leading politicians, journalists, and business leaders as alumnae—has invited a rogue’s gallery to take part in a “Free Speech Forum” set for the end of November. The Union has already been excoriated by critics, as noted on contentions, for staging a debate on the Middle East conflict and loading it with anti-Israel activists.

Among those invited to the “Free Speech Forum” are David Irving (the notorious Holocaust denier), Nick Griffin (the leader of the anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist British National Party), and Alexander Lukoshenko, the dictator of Belarus. The Union’s president told the Guardian that, “The Oxford Union is famous for is commitment to free speech and although I do think these people have awful and abhorrent views I do think Oxford students are intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule them.” Indeed, one Oxford Union committee member even used Columbia’s example as a justification for the invite: “If Columbia can invite Ahmadinejad, then why shouldn’t we invite Irving?” Thankfully, Lukoshenko is under a European Union travel ban and will not be able to attend. Unfortunately, both the fascist and the Holocaust denier have indicated their eager anticipation.

The primary outcome of this invitation is the Oxford Union’s discrediting of itself. As with Ahmadinejad at Columbia, there is nothing to be “learned” from engaging in dialogue with fascists and Holocaust-deniers. Oxford students are indeed an “intelligent” bunch: all the more reason that they do not need to spend an evening listening to these men, thus granting them legitimacy. One presumes that the motivating impulse behind Oxford’s “Free Speech Forum” is to present some of the most outlandish views possible. But the purpose of freedom of speech is to elevate discussion and broaden our common understanding, not to promote lies and hate (Griffin’s and Irving’s specialty).

To honor “free speech,” ought not the Oxford Union instead extend invitations to individuals living in countries where the principle is non-existent? Why not invite democracy activists in China or exiled Zimbabwean journalists, of which there is no shortage in the United Kingdom?


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