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Columbia University: Land of the Free?

On the same day last week, Columbia University announced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been invited to speak on campus and then, a few hours later, revoked that same invitation. Although the entire situation presents many issues relating to free speech and academic freedom, I was most struck by a statement that Columbia President Lee Bollinger made shortly after news of the controversial invitation broke. While defending the invitation, he proclaimed his love for freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas. The Columbia Spectator reported that:

Bollinger said he believes students and faculty will use the opportunity to engage the controversial leader in debate.

“I have no doubt that Columbia students and faculty would use an open exchange to challenge him sharply and are fully capable of reaching their own conclusions,” he said.

By this statement, one would think that Columbia University is a bastion of liberty and free thought, but, unfortunately, its students are not so free. It is ranked a red light school on Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource, and FIRE has been forced to intervene on three separate occasions to protect the rights of its students and faculty. The university maintains a sexual harassment policy that bans “sexual innuendoes,” “sexist jokes or cartoons,” and “comments about a person’s body.” So, if you are a student at Columbia, you better not make any comments about a fellow student’s physical appearance or say “screw that professor” (sexual innuendo) next time you are surprised with a pop quiz or you could end up with a charge of sexual harassment. If you don’t think this can happen, then just take a look at the case of Professor George P. Fletcher, who was investigated for harassment for an “offensive” test question (a case that is eerily similar to a current FIRE case at Bellevue Community College where Professor Peter Ratener is facing discipline for another “offensive” test question).

It is unfortunate that FIRE sees so many universities with horrible track records, like Columbia and DePaul (where the president proclaimed “DePaul strongly supports free speech” while disciplining a group for protesting Ward Churchill), who publicly extol the values of freedom of speech, but routinely censor unpopular speech and maintain repressive speech codes. Perhaps Bollinger will stop the doublespeak and abolish Columbia’s immoral speech code.

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