Columbia Dialogues

By March 14, 2005

Last week, several interesting dialogues about the controversy at Columbia took place on campus. On Tuesday, March 8, Columbia President Lee Bollinger held a “Common Meal” with students as “a follow-up to the Feb. 23 Common Meal on academic freedom in which University Provost Alan Brinkley addressed students.”  While these “Common Meal” sessions provided an opportunity for “informal conversations” with administrators, they definitely did not seem as lively and candid as the student-organized debate on Wednesday night. Two student groups, Columbians for Academic Freedom (CAF) and the Columbia Antiwar Coalition, cosponsored a debate entitled “Academic Freedom and Censorship at Columbia—What’s at Stake?”, with 3 members of each group debating the other side for 40 minutes followed by 60 minutes of audience commentary.  With the Antiwar Coalition arguing that the David Project film was not about academic freedom but served a larger “pro-Israel political agenda” and the Columbians for Academic Freedom claiming a “double standard” exists that silences Jewish and Zionist students in the classroom, it looks like Columbia’s students are taking matters into their own hands in trying to figure out what’s really going on. 

One interesting comment was made by a student from the audience to CAF that I think points at something really important in any debate about free speech on campus: “It’s irresponsible for you to release greater social forces and then pretend you didn’t do it.”  In other words, while students may have the right to freedom of speech, this doesn’t include a right to freedom from moral responsibility for what is being said. Shouldn’t they recognize that they are being held accountable (morally, if not legally) for the impact of their words beyond the campus? How does freedom of speech on campus tie into how civil liberties are treated outside of the campus setting? How does the impact of external politics on campus politics, and vice versa, inform us about what’s really at stake?

These questions will hopefully be more fully answered as the free speech debates continue…

Schools: Columbia University