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Lee Bollinger’s Free-Speech Hypocrisy

Although the famous liberal intolerance for opposing ideas is often at its most stifling on American college campuses, there is one school with a free-speech track record so poor it outraged New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That school is Columbia University, and its president, Lee Bollinger, has made a name for himself by fostering an atmosphere of censorship on campus in which speech is often suppressed by the faculty and student groups, sometimes violently. One such incident took place in 2006, when speakers from the Minuteman Project were rushed by protesters storming the stage.

Bollinger wasn’t bothered by it, but for many it was the last straw, and Bloomberg unloaded. “Bollinger’s just got to get his hands around this,” Bloomberg told the New York Times. “There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.” It wasn’t just conservative groups or others that transgress the university’s idea of political correctness. Jewish groups were the target of intimidation by faculty, and there are ideological litmus tests for university programs. Additionally, Bollinger famously brought one of the world’s leading censors, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to campus while still banning the ROTC. No one in his right mind would consider Bollinger a friend of free speech except … Lee Bollinger. Here he is writing in Foreign Policy magazine advocating for free speech around the world.

It’s not that Bollinger’s article is offensive–it’s standard but welcome boilerplate about the assault on free speech and the need to understand how a changing media landscape affects both the threats to, and opportunities for, freedom of expression and thought in a globalized world. But the choice of author is indefensible. There was no one with a better record than Bollinger to tout free speech? In fact, in American higher education there are few with worse records than Bollinger. And it is just plainly insulting to read Bollinger hypocritically and sanctimoniously pat himself on the back in paragraphs like this:

Second, the very essence of modern life is the opportunity for people everywhere to speak, hear, persuade, change their minds, know what others are thinking, and think for themselves. Our great institutions of higher education, including the one I lead, bear a special social responsibility for educating people to possess a nimble cast of mind, able to grasp multiple perspectives and the full complexity of a subject. And for centuries, great societies of all types have understood that this kind of intellectual capacity is essential to progress. But never have critical thinking and tolerance been more important for individual well-being and for our collective prosperity.

Indeed, Bollinger is right that he has a “special social responsibility”–and it is one he has abdicated in the decade he’s been at Columbia.

It’s not that Bollinger allows no offensive speech at Columbia; I was there to cover Ahmadinejad’s speech and saw plenty of anti-Jewish conspiracy theorists flaunting their pathological suspicions of Jews and countless portrayals of then-President George W. Bush as–who else?–Hitler.

In 2005, after pro-Israel students at the school tried to get the university to address the intimidation they were getting from pro-Palestinian teachers, Bollinger tried to avoid dealing with it. When the New York Times asked him why he didn’t get involved sooner, he explained that he’s just a man who contains multitudes. “I tried to walk a very, very fine line,” he said. “I have a problem because I like to see complexity.”

Lee Bollinger may be a complex man, but his record on free speech is simple and unambiguous. He is an expert on free speech only to the extent that he has clearly studied how to keep it off his campus.


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