Hitler Welcome on Campus, Student Speech Not

A Columbia University dean, John Coatsworth, has defended his university’s invitation to Iran’s anti-American ruler, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, by saying that it would have been equally appropriate to invite Adolf Hitler to speak back when he was alive.

Ironically, Columbia University is headed by Lee Bollinger, who as a University of Michigan administrator and law professor supported the first campus speech code struck down by the courts as a violation of free speech in Doe v. University of Michigan (1989). The Michigan speech code defined as punishable “harassment” a wide range of speech, such as negative comments about a racial or sexual group, and sexual or ethnic jokes. The plaintiff in that case was a graduate student who wanted to study gender and racial differences and discuss what he had learned without being punished for “harassment.”

Bollinger now claims that free speech principles require him to defend Columbia’s invitation to the Iranian ruler, whose regime promotes terrorism and violence against our troops, oppresses women and ethnic minorities, and jails and executes gays.

While academia has no problem hosting dictators with odious views, like Hitler and Ahmedinejad, it does have a problem with allowing students to express even mildly distasteful views. Students, unlike dictators, seem not to have free speech rights in academia.

Temple University is now appealing a federal court ruling striking down its speech code in DeJohn v. Temple University. It argues that the speech code, which bans a wide range of speech including but not limited to “generalized sexist remarks,” is absolutely essential.

In the eyes of college administrators, it’s OK to host an anti-American despot like Ahmedinejad whose regime systematically treats women like chattel and forces them to wear chadors. But it’s not OK to tolerate free speech from an American student who says something in passing that a listener perceives as sexist.

While academia was busy to catering to a bigoted anti-American ruler, it was disinviting a former Treasury Secretary from speaking at the University of California merely because he once raised the possibility that gender-based differences might be part of the reason why science faculty are predominantly male.