I assume we can dispose of actual First Amendment arguments as to whether Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs ought to invite Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak, or whether Stanford's Hoover Institution ought to appoint former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a be a visiting scholar, having previously served on Hoover's board of overseers. Both are private organizations and thus can censor or encourage speech at their discretion.
The question therefore is about the underlying values of the free speech, e.g. the marketplace metaphor (which I identify with Justice Holmes) that one must allow people to speak in order to determine whether their claims have worth, and the town meeting (Alexander Meiklejohn) in which one must allow people to speak so that they can convince or be convinced. There also is the quasi-religious notion of free speech, that people must be able to speak in order to self-actualize, but given that neither Columbia nor Stanford has offered me what they offer presidents and defense ministers, clearly the importance of the speaker's voice to herself is not what they care about. This isn't Hyde Park; this is a large auditorium at Columbia, and a prestigious position at Stanford. So I suppose the question is whether these universities need to have Ahmadinejad or Rumsfeld present in order to increase the ideas on offer in the marketplace, or to give them the opportunity to convince others or be convinced themselves.
Because neither Ahmadinejad nor Rumsfeld strikes me as an open-minded sort of fellow, I am doubtful that they will be convinced of anything themselves by engaging with alternative viewpoints. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger's determination to open Ahmadinejad's forum with "a series of sharp challenges to the president" is laudable, but seems likely to be ludicrious in the execution. I don't closely follow Iranian government policy, much less believe in it, and I can think of facile justifications and evasions for every issue that Bollinger intends to raise. Ahmadinejad has heard it all before; probably the only way to get something like honesty from him would be to ask something shockingly inappropriate. And if Rumsfeld's belief in his own righteousness has not been shaken by how the war on terror has unfolded thus far, then a year with his conservative compatriots at the Hoover Institution seems unlikely to put a crack in it.
Should Ahmadinejad and Rumsfeld be given the opportunity to convince others? Rumsfeld seems a lot more likely to be able to convince some of his prospective audience than Ahmadinejad will be. If nothing else, the former are likely to be more receptive than the latter. One can expect Iraqis to have put aside their differences and formed a functioning nation, and still be intellectually respectable, albeit rather naive. I'm sure Rumsfeld can argue convincingly that if only the Left hadn't given aid and comfort/ Iran hadn't interfered/ he'd been permitted to be more aggressive in securing borders and punishing insurgents, Iraq would be the oil-rich version of MacArthur's Japan.
To take only one of Ahmadinejad's beliefs, Holocaust denial is simply not permitted in America -- not in the same sense that it is civilly impermissible in Britain, nor criminally impermissible in France, but socially impermissible. It's not seen as merely stupid, as the Rumsfeldian position is seen by many, but actually a moral wrong against Holocaust victims, survivors and their families. I am assuming here that Ahmadinejad would be seriously attempting to make a good argument for his positions. However, as noted above, he's more likely to evade the "challenges" to the positions he knows won't fly with any member of the audience.
Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction is a different matter. Both those with a general opposition to nukes, and those who believe that Team America, World Policeman should be the sole holder of nukes, perceive developing nations' pursuit of nuclear technology as dangerous. However, people from those countries often see the matter quite differently. When Clinton put sanctions on India and Pakistan, my dad was angry because he saw this as high-handed indifference to India's safety (and as far as we know, India hasn't be handing nuclear technology around to the axis of evil, while Pakistan...). For people not raised on American exceptionalism, the notion that other nations ought to be prevented from developing the same stuff the U.S. has is infuriating.
So both Rumsfeld and Ahmadinejad probably would be able to convince some people who heard them that they were right, which brings up the marketplace: are these intellectual goods unfit to be sold in the universities' precincts? Are their ideas so wrong, or are the sellers such bad men, that they cannot join the stalls?
Here the advantage goes very much to Rumsfeld. If his ideas are toxic, they're nonetheless ones that have been well-publicized in America already, and he wasn't a sufficiently awful person to keep his boss from getting reelected in 2004. I find it difficult to say that after being Bush's Secretary of Defense, the imprimatur of the Hoover Institution means much one way or the other. It's an avowedly conservative entity taking in a Republican refugee -- no surprise.
Ahmadinejad is a quite different case. His ideas that are most likely to be convincing to others, such as the justice of Iran's nuclear ambitions and the unfairness of international opposition, are the ones that have gotten least play in America. Crazy S.O.B. who denies the Holocaust and helps terrorists and supports a theocracy that punishes sex outside with marriage with death -- all those are known to the half-literate flipping through the New York Post. Iran's non-genocidal rationales for wanting nuclear technology, however, tend to be ignored or lightly dismissed. A forum that focused on this issue probably would be a lot more interesting than what is planned.
Yet it is Ahmadinejad's essentially indefensible positions on everything else (Holocaust denial, fatwa on Israel, terrorist funding, theocracy and lack of free speech) that render him a person who is so bad, and recognized as such by Columbia's most important constituencies, that the question of whether to have him as a guest is much closer than it is for Rumsfeld.
There's a tightrope that seems to be unrecognized by those who think the best solution is to treat Ahmadinejad as a raving nonentity. To wit, if the United States and its academic institutions take such an attitude toward Iran's president, this is likely to be interpreted as disrespect not only toward him as an individual, but toward Iran and toward Muslims sympathetic to Iran's government generally. It is one thing to say that Ahmadinejad is factually and morally wrong; that should be said repeatedly, whenever possible. It is another to say that he does not belong at a World Leaders Forum, which is the grandiose title of Columbia's event. He is a World Leader, for bet-- well, for worse than his predecessor -- and a posture that he is unworthy of being recognized as such is both unrealistic and unproductive, much like insisting that the People's Republic of China ought not be recognized as China.
In its combination of population size (65 million) and PPP GDP ($599.2 billion), Iran may be the most significant nation represented at the Forum. The other nations -- Turkmenistan (5mil; $42.84 billion), Malawi (13mil; $8.272 billion), Chile (16mil; $202.7 billion), Estonia (1.3mil; $26.85 billion), Georgia (4.6mil; $18.16 billion), Bosnia and Herzegovina (4.5mil; $25.32 billion), and Bangladesh (150 million; $336.1 billion) -- lack Iran's geopolitical importance to the United States. The CIA factbook estimates that as of 2006, Iran had 662,355 Afghan and 54,000 Iraqi refugees.
From within Columbia, therefore, not allowing Ahmadinejad at the World Leaders Forum runs counter to what the university thinks it is doing with the event:
Launched in 2003, the World Leaders Forum is an annual University-wide initiative that helps realize Columbia's commitment to serving as a center for public discussion and debate on the large economic, political, social, and cultural questions of our time that cut across both traditional academic and international boundaries.The idea here is not to "honor" the leaders, and to the extent that the NY Sun et al. believe that it is, they don't understand the Forum (and probably haven't attended it). Unquestionable, it gives leaders a platform; so does the United Nations and any other organization that includes these countries. And if Ahmadinejad is treated any more politely than a debating opponent ought to be -- for example, if he is given a gift -- then Bollinger will indeed have "honor[ed] the dishonorable." And perhaps outside Columbia, there is no way to see an acceptance of a speaker as anything other than an honor that should be bestowed only on the morally worthy.
The Forum brings together a wide range of governmental leaders, influential citizens, and intellectuals from many nations to examine global challenges and explore cultural perspectives. Throughout the yearlong series of events, Columbia's students, faculty, and alumni, along with members of the wider New York City community, gather to engage in an open dialogue with a variety of world leaders.
Nonetheless, if Bollinger and the university as a whole successfully walk the tightrope, I will not be among the students disappointed by the decision to have Ahmadinejad at the World Leaders Forum.
INCIDENTALLY: I would not have thought to discuss Rumsfeld and Ahmadinejad together had David Bernstein not done so.