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SHORT TAKES


September 21, 2007

Who's Too Extreme For Columbia?

Here's a game. The following quote is from The Columbia Spectator yesterday. To which campus lecture is the article referring?

A university's free speech is not the same as a country's free speech, and failing to distinguish the two is hazardous to the intellectual and social climate we are all striving to maintain. After all, we are a special community with our own set of values and priorities and a unique obligation to our community members. One such value is scholarly exchange-but that must be preconditioned with the safety of our students.

A reasonable point - there are differences between free speech as existing at large and free speech in larger abstract. And given the President of Iran's human rights record, there's a very reasonable argument that he doesn't exist on the plane of reasonable discourse. Wait, she's talking about Ahmadinejad, right?

Nope. The real threat, for Mitchell, it seems, on a day on which the Columbia Spectator ran three op-eds about Ahmadinejad, was Jim Gilchrist, the interrupted-invited-and-now-disinvited Minutemen head. Gilchrist stood, evidently, as a greater threat to her idea of the Columbia community than Ahmadinejad did.

Her piece grows steadily more ludicrous, referring to the Minutemen as part of a power structure that is a threat to all immigrants - "Gilchrist promises to relieve the country of its immigrant burdens" (his beat was illegal immigration the last time that I checked). The piece reaches a boiling point in the following parapgrah:

Whatever lessons I could have learned the night the Minutemen came to speak would not have been worth the consequences: more lethal to intellectual freedom than preventing the group from speaking is further alienating and silencing fellow students. Rushing on stage is not my idea of a productive conversation. But it is also not the kind of option students resort to if they have access to other outlets. So, yes, maybe one part of our conversation needs to be about the implications of a university legitimizing a voice like the Minutemen's; but another is how we can empower and support marginalized groups in our community so that those like the Minutemen never have the final word.

Allowing Gilchrist to speak silences fellow students? The students in the audience had no choice but to rush the stage? Perhaps they could have asked a question? Or held a loud rally on the quad (as they did with Gilchrist's original appearance). Or written an op-ed for the Columbia Spectator - as we can see, they don't set a very high bar for publication. Simply permitting an argument to unfold on a university stage is "lethal to intellectual freedom?"
I couldn't imagine anything more lethal to intellectual freedom than to ground the term in such hopelessly vague concepts as "alienation" and silencing." Which also seems to render unacceptable just about any speech that fails to suitably coddle Mitchell's own forward-looking sentiments.

Comments (2)

Marc Savoy:

What am I missing something here? The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the rights of its citizens
to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference.

Why is first amendment privileges being applied to a decidedly
non-US citizen such as the President of Iran?

Samuel Agresta:

Awesome post.

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