Sept. 19, 2007
On Monday, September 24, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, is scheduled to appear as a speaker on campus. The event is sponsored
by the School of International and Public Affairs (see SIPA announcement), which has been in contact
with the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. The event will be part of the
annual World Leaders Forum, the University-wide initiative intended to further
Columbia’s longstanding tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate,
especially on global issues.
In order to have such a University-wide forum, we have insisted that a number
of conditions be met, first and foremost that President Ahmadinejad agree to
divide his time evenly between delivering remarks and responding to audience
questions. I also wanted to be sure the Iranians understood that I would myself
introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the president on issues
- the Iranian president’s denial of the Holocaust;
- his public call for the destruction of the State of Israel;
- his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;
- Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;
- his government's widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women's rights; and
- his government's imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia’s own alumni,
Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh (see President Bollinger's statement on Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh's release).
I would like to add a few comments on the principles that underlie this event.
Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed
to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. To
fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools,
our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily,
on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even
all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including
our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through
the powers of dialogue and reason.
I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of
speech as a central value in our society. It should never be thought that merely
to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas,
or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.
That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.