Columbia Exercised Free Speech with Iran

There was much protest by the students of Columbia University when the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was invited to speak at the university last week. Many believed that with an invitation to a prestigious American university, Ahmadinejad was being given an influential forum to spew hatred against Jews, Americans, gays and women. Such a forum seemed to also validate Ahmadinejad as a leader. However, much can be learned from the direct words of Ahmadinejad and from the example set by Columbia University.
While many believe that inviting Ahmadinejad was a waste of time, reaching out was actually an act of diplomacy. Many are aware of the President’s views on homosexuality and his denial of the Holocaust. His reiteration of these opinions did not teach anyone in attendance anything new. In fact, it just confirmed the audience’s views of the President of Iran as not only a puppet of the Ayatollah, but also as a person who is in denial of reality. However, in the midst of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the beating the United States’ reputation is taking, inviting a representative of an aggressive nation to speak at a university is an act of good diplomacy. Columbia demonstrated it was at least willing to acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion between the two nations, and that the difference should be explored by debate and communication.
It was important to hear directly from Ahmadinejad about Iran’s views regarding not only the Holocaust but also the state of Israel. When questioned about his calls for more research about the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad replied, ‘There are different perspectives that come to light after every research is done [sic].’ He was essentially calling for the questioning of facts that have already been established. His direct answer to the question of how homosexuals are treated in Iran was important to hear because it made clear his refusal to acknowledge his own nation’s actions. In Iran, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by lashes or death.
Though Ahmadinejad was very direct in some of his answers, many times he was evasive and vague. John Coatsworth, the acting dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, seized his chance to confront Ahmadinejad when he refused to give a straight answer to the question about his calls for the destruction of Israel; Coatsworth called the president out for evading the question, and asked him to be more specific and drop his diplomatic fa