A small victory for free speech

Many agree with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's description of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "petty and cruel dictator." Others think the university president went too far in trying to distance himself from the Iranian president's remarks at the New York school.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it's a small victory that we're having the debate, because there were forces at work to prevent Ahmadinejad from appearing at all.

Bollinger and the university came in for pointed criticism from conservative corners and pro-Israel groups after it was announced Ahmadinejad would participate in a question-and-answer forum at Columbia. The Iranian president has made numerous inflammatory statements — denying the Holocaust occurred, among them — and is generally considered a loose cannon and a dangerous fool by most of the civilized world.

So, when Ahmadinejad made plans to come to the United Nations, Columbia University extended the offer for him to participate in the Q&A forum. He accepted, setting off howls in various corners of this country and elsewhere. The protesters apparently came to the conclusion that allowing someone to speak is akin to endorsing their viewpoint — and in doing so proved that fools are not limited to Iranian leadership.

This followed on the heels of a decision by the University of California Board of Regents to withdraw a speaking invitation to former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. His offense was committed a few years ago, when he suggested that the disparity in accomplishments between men and women in math and science could in part be due to genetic differences in the genders. That observation, which was presented as a possibility, apparently has made him persona non grata in the California university system.

Whether it's a university president voicing a politically incorrect thought or a tinhorn tyrant spouting unpopular beliefs, we are better to hear them out than to shut off their speech. Sometimes it may even serve our own purposes: Ahmadinejad cemented his status as a kook when he asserted there are no homosexuals in his country.

For those conservatives in this country who are outraged at the Columbia forum, perhaps they should consider the words of President Bush, who said Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia "speaks volumes about, really, the greatness of America."

This country has long tolerated the opinions of people with whom we disagree. That's one of the many things that makes it a better place than Ahmadinejad's homeland.

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