A Columbia expert on free speech is accused of speaking too softly

By on October 22, 2006

Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, is a natural in the classroom, guiding undergraduates through the intricacies of the First Amendment.

Here he is, pacing, jacketless, playing the role of a politician who wants to ban pornography: Would it be constitutional, he asks his students? How would he justify the limits on free speech? He presses on, as a politician might, proclaiming, “I really think we should eliminate certain viewpoints from society.” Some students start to laugh. “Why don’t we do that?” he asks.

There is probably no university chief in America more steeped in issues of free speech than Mr. Bollinger, 60, a First Amendment scholar.

And yet, in just the last month, his campus has been embroiled in four separate free-speech controversies: over the language in an ice hockey recruiting flier; a rescinded speaking invitation to the president of Iran; a Teachers College policy on “social justice” that some see as an ideological litmus test; and a brawl that broke out during a protest against a speech by the founder of the Minuteman Project, a group that has mounted border patrols to fight illegal immigration.

Critics including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and editorial writers at many newspapers across the country scolded the protesters at that speech and questioned why Mr. Bollinger, of all people, could not keep Columbia open to diverse voices.

“Bollinger definitely knows how to say the right things about free speech, but the question is whether he can walk the walk,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that presses for free speech in academia.

Since he took over as president four years ago, Mr. Bollinger has unfailingly defended free speech at each new challenge. But some professors and others say his carefully wrought statements in favor of open discussion often come across as the work of a deliberative legal scholar more than a forceful leader.

“It would help foster a culture of free speech at Columbia and similar institutions if leading spokespersons could convey this point loudly and clearly,” said David C. Johnston, a professor of political philosophy at Columbia. “But that has not happened at Columbia recently.”

Others disagree.

William V. Campbell, the chairman of the university’s board, said Mr. Bollinger “has handled these things as firmly and directly as he possibly could.”

Eric R. Kandel, a professor and Nobel laureate in medicine, called Mr. Bollinger’s approach “simply superb.”

And an editorial in the student newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator, said that in the frenzy over the disruption of the speech by the Minuteman leader, Jim Gilchrist, “it appears that the administration is the only party that has reacted thoughtfully.”

To some extent, the skirmishes over free speech illustrate the challenges facing any university president — free-speech expert or not — trying to foster open discussion at a large institution with many constituencies. This year, protesters at the New School in New York City attracted attention when they jeered their commencement speaker, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and presidential prospect.

In an interview, Mr. Bollinger said Columbia’s record of free speech incidents was just “the nature of controversy in the world, playing out on a great university campus, which happens to be one of the most covered by the media.”

Now one of the most selective colleges in the Ivy League, Columbia, under Mr. Bollinger’s leadership, has embarked on an ambitious campus expansion and a $4 billion capital campaign. This month it harvested two new Nobel prizes. It is almost a tradition for Columbia, with its New York City setting and its defining student protest of 1968, to attract both outspoken students and free-speech controversies.

In 2003, after a professor at an antiwar teach-in said he would like to see “a million Mogadishus,” referring to the lethal 1993 “Black Hawk Down” firefight in Somalia, Mr. Bollinger was swamped by calls to fire the professor. He said repeatedly that while he was appalled by the sentiment, professors had a right to express their opinions.

Then came a bruising battle over whether Jewish students faced harassment from pro-Palestinian faculty members, which led to a lengthy investigation of the charges and of the university’s handling of complaints.

These days, debate over what constitutes legitimate speech and legitimate protest rages anew. Students recently faced off at a debate sponsored by the Columbia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on whether demonstrators had the right to rush the stage at the Gilchrist speech.

“There’s general agreement that the physical altercation was unacceptable, but it’s one of these things where certain students feel it’s completely acceptable to walk on stage and others believe that it isn’t,” said Christopher Riano, one of the students who lead the University Senate’s student affairs committee. “President Bollinger has done a very good job of engaging students. The area of debate is where do we, as Columbia, feel the lines should be drawn, and that debate is going to continue.”

Others say that despite Mr. Bollinger’s statements on the importance of free speech, he and Columbia sometimes appear to be sending mixed messages.

The ice hockey club team, for example, was told on Sept. 24 that it would not be allowed to play this year and would be on probation for two years because of an unapproved flier that contained vulgar language.

Many students thought the punishment too harsh. A sophomore hockey hopeful, Matt Pruznick, called it “ridiculous”; Brendan Charney, who leads the Columbia A.C.L.U., said it “chilled free speech.”

After a week, the university backed down, saying that the team could play this year and that the probation would last one year, not two.

There was also the flip-flop over a dean’s invitation to Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and its withdrawal less than 24 hours later. Faced with protests about the invitation to the leader, who has called the Holocaust a “myth,” Mr. Bollinger defended it, saying, “We are not afraid of words from the likes of President Ahmadinejad.” But he also stood by as the dean canceled the appearance, citing security concerns.

Bruce W. Robbins, a professor in the English and Comparative Literature Department, said, “When the invitation to President Ahmadinejad was canceled on what looked very much like a technicality, it seemed to a lot of us that the speaker had been silenced and people’s right to hear him ignored.”

Then, too, Mr. Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in September to Mr. Bollinger and the president of Teachers College, a graduate school that is run independently of Columbia, complaining about a Teachers College policy it termed an “ an ideological loyalty oath.”

The school’s “conceptual framework” says its teacher training emphasizes “our strong commitment to education for social justice” and adds that “all educators need to believe that schools can be sites for social transformation even though they may currently serve to maintain social inequities.”

Neither Columbia nor Teachers College answered the complaint until after the group took the matter public. Then, in a letter Oct. 11, the president of Teachers College, Susan H. Fuhrman, said that there was no ideology imposed on students. “We teach a concern for social justice, but do not legislate a vision of what social justice is,” she wrote.

Mr. Bollinger says he feels comfortable with the handling of each of these issues. Moreover, he said, he believes strongly that his scholarly temperament and his commitment to responding to issues in “all their complexity” serve him and Columbia well.

But Michael I. Sovern, a past president of Columbia who says he admires Mr. Bollinger’s leadership on the university’s expansion, sounds unsure when asked about Mr. Bollinger’s leadership on free-speech issues.

“The bully pulpit is the president’s most effective tool,” Mr. Sovern said.

And is Mr. Bollinger using it effectively?

“Boy, that’s hard to say,” Mr. Sovern said.

Mr. Bollinger, who became known nationally for his defense of affirmative action while president of the University of Michigan, does not depart willingly from scholarly discourse.

“You can’t represent an institution without being consistent with its fundamental character,” he said. “If you try to oversimplify, ultimately it will catch up with you.”

For all his ease in the classroom, Mr. Bollinger is more formal, more measured in an interview, answering questions slowly and thoughtfully — or, sometimes, saying nothing and simply waiting for another question.

Asked about his leadership, Mr. Bollinger said, “It’s really wrong to assume that there is an inconsistency between seeing complexity and taking a strong position.”

He stressed that he has stood up very visibly for affirmative action, for diversity — and for free speech, as recently as in the statement he sent out campus-wide responding to the Minuteman controversy.

“In a society committed to free speech, there will inevitably be times when speakers use words that anger, provoke, and even cause pain,” it said in part. “Then, more than ever, we are called on to maintain our courage to confront bad words with better words. That is the hallmark of a university and of our democratic society.” The university is investigating the event and has said it could bring disciplinary charges.

In the class that he teaches for undergraduates, “Freedom of Speech and Press,” Mr. Bollinger praised thoughtfulness.

When a student, asked whether a pornography ban would withstand legal scrutiny, responded, “It’s complicated,” the professor smiled.

“It is complicated,” he said. “It’s taken me two months to get you to say that.”

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Schools: Columbia University