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The Tentacle


September 26, 2007

The Priceless Right to Free Speech

Kevin E. Dayhoff

It has certainly been an interesting week for the exercise of our sacred right to freedom of speech in the United States. Various recent developments in this most cherished of rights provided a rich target environment for the news media, constitutional scholars, and pundits alike.

Certainly at the top of most anyone's kerfuffle was the arrival of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York on Sunday. In particular, there was his subsequent paradoxical pilgrimage to Columbia University on Monday.

As much as I am concerned, to say the least, about what it is that the Iranian president says, my problem is more with Columbia University's persistent inconsistencies about the sacred right to free speech.

The esteemed institution piously, self-righteously, if not - condescendingly - proclaims to be the standard-bearer for a "long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate," according to Columbia's president, Lee C. Bollinger.

Oh, pul-leeze! Columbia University extended an invitation to President Ahmadinejad, who many believe represents a country involved in the killing of Americans in uniform fighting in Iraq. However, the very military and its ROTC program, which defends our freedom of speech, are banned from the Columbia campus.

And that is just one example of the hypocrisy of the institution. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Columbia were to extend the courtesy to all Americans of varying political ideologies that it so easily extended to President Ahmadinejad?

Many are singing praises for Columbia President Bollinger for his stinging rebuke in the introduction of his guest. Then again, there are those of us who understand the paradox of President Bollinger's heroic Shakespearian soliloquy as a convenient - if not hypocritical - response to a conundrum he synthetically manufactured.

As for President Ahmadinejad, he did not disappoint. He delivered an evasive, rambling, and at times, nonsensical address on religion and science, unaffected by reality or accepted historical facts.

Not to be overlooked in the recent rash of free speech discussion exhibits was the introduction of "Don't Tase me, bro," into the national lexicon by an over-zealous, publicity seeking University of Florida student at a forum featuring U. S. Sen. John Kerry (D., MA) on September 17.

The young plodding thumb-sucker "apparently asked several questions - he went on for quite awhile. Then he was asked to stop. He had used his allotted time. His microphone was cut off; then he became upset," recounted a university spokesman.

As several police officers attempted to show him the door, it is alleged that he got physical with them - and the police tasered him in response; sparking a debate over freedom of speech and the use of force.

There were several charges lodged against the gentleman; however, it is not known if "aggravated stupidity" exercised under the influence of "obnoxious personality disorder" - often confused with the right to free speech - was one of the charges.

Last Friday, in response to the incident, the august Colorado State University student newspaper, the "Rocky Mountain Collegian," published a sophomoric four-word editorial, "Taser this .(expletive deleted) Bush," which utilized a word well accepted as offensive.

It went over about as well as the now-infamous, "General Betray Us" ad printed by MoveOn.org in The New York Times on September 10, to coincide with the congressional testimony of Gen. David H. Petraeus.

One of the great dynamics of free speech is rather than silence 'such folks,' and subsequently speculate as to whether or not they represent thoughts inconsistent with what most Americans feel are appropriate approaches to the challenges we face; free speech allows these brainiacs to open their mouths and prove their shortcomings.

I respect the folks who disagree.

Political commentator Mark Newgent calls to our attention the remarks of columnist Roger Kimball, who wrote: "By providing a madman like (President) Ahmadinejad with a platform at Columbia University, President Bollinger has in effect welcomed him into the community of candid reasoners. He has granted him a patent of legitimacy that no amount of 'dialogue and reason' can dissipate. In this case, 'listening' is indeed tantamount to an endorsement. It reduces free speech to a species of political capitulation and renders dialogue indistinguishable from a suicide pact."

However, free speech is not means-tested by whether or not it legitimatizes.

Nevertheless, the "legitimacy argument" is supportable when one understands the lack of power invested in the office of the presidency in Iran. The 1979 revolution saw the adoption of a constitution, called the Qanun-e Asasi, which established a theocratic form of government that is run by a complex series of complicated councils. Simplistically, the country is run by an "Assembly of Experts," who chooses a "Supreme Leader."

It may be suggested that the office of the president of Iran could be analogous to an elected "country administrator," whose duties are to implement the policies determined by the Supreme Leader and various councilmatic authorities.

For example, President Ahmadinejad has essentially no control over the army or police forces - or the country's nuclear program, for that matter.

Furthermore, his grasp on power is tenuous at best, as there are powerful people in Iran, who have been unhappy with his unholy symbiotic love affair with the Western press and his administration of the country.

As far as Columbia University is concerned, here's a newsflash. There are many people who do not currently hold the once prestigious university in such high regard that it could legitimize someone such as President Ahmadinejad.

And paradoxically, by way of the fact that the university exercised the right to free speech and invited such a person to speak, it further de-legitimized the institution of being held in high esteem.

Free speech and by extension, freedom of the press, are well accepted as valuable inalienable rights by most Americans.

However, providing President Ahmadinejad, the New York Times, MoveOn.org, and Columbia University, et al, the opportunity to prove that they operate outside the parameters of most thinking Americans makes all the cringe-worthy moments provided by the right to free speech - absolutely priceless.

Kevin Dayhoff exercises his right to free speech from Westminster: E-mail him at: kdayhoff@carr.org



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