Nat Hentoff on Columbia and the First Amendment

October 10, 2007

In yesterday’s Village Voice, Nat Hentoff (a member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors) points out an ominous development in Columbia University’s invitation to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hentoff writes:

Until now, I have not mentioned the free speech rallying cry, “the First Amendment,” because Columbia is a private university and the First Amendment doesn’t kick in unless there is action by an agent or agency of the state (local, state, and federal) to repress speech.

But the warfare on Lee Bollinger’s alleged perversion of academic freedom has indeed become a First Amendment issue—thanks to Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, and the most powerful behind-the-scenes operator in Albany.

On September 24, a front-page story in The New York Sun reported that because Lee Bollinger refused to bow to public pressure to cancel the radioactive invitation, Silver and other lawmakers “are considering withholding public funds [in the future] from [Columbia]” in protest.

Hentoff responds, “should this contemplated punishment of Columbia set a precedent for an Enemies’ List in Albany, other states, and Washington to prevent taxpayers’ money going to institutions harboring, however briefly, enemies or those linked to enemies of the United States? I expect Dick Cheney would help update such a list.”

It seems that Sheldon Silver needs to read up on the First Amendment. Punishing Columbia for hosting Ahmadinejad, even in the form of reviewing Columbia’s public funding selectively when other schools are not so investigated, would produce an unacceptable chilling effect at every university that is considering an invitation to a controversial speaker.

Hentoff also adds his voice to others who have pointed out Columbia’s hypocrisy in persuading the Columbia Political Union to disinvite Jim Gilchrist of the Minutemen: “that invitation has been scrubbed because of fear of disruption. Gee, what did they expect with Ahmadinejad?”

For more, read Nat Hentoff’s full column, “Lee Bollinger’s Triumph.”

Schools:  Columbia University