Columbia, MoveOn.org, and General "Betray Us"
In a recent post, I argued that Columbia University did nothing "wrong" in inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak. To the contrary, its invitation to this allegedly "cruel and petty dictator" was well within Columbia's fundamental mission as a university, which is not to "endorse" particular ideas as "right" or "wrong," but to promote a robust and lively and sometimes controversial exchange of views in order to promote the ultimate goal of education.
In this post, I want to draw a subtle but perhaps illuminating connection between the response of Columbia to its own decision to invite Mr. Ahmadinejad to campus and the Senate's response to the recent MoveOn.org ad in the New York Times attacking General Petraeus.
Having invited to campus a highly provocative speaker whose views many faculty, students, alumni, and donors find offensive, what is a university to do? In such a situation, the university (and especially its president) is presented with a quandary. On the one hand, the university wants to celebrate its commitment to free speech and to congratulate itself on having the courage to invite such a speaker. On the other hand, it wants to mollify those who despise the speaker and who accuse the the institution of acting irresponsibly by seeming to dignify his views. No sensible university (or university president) wants faculty, students, alumni, and donors to be angry.
This was the dilemma facing Columbia President Lee Bollinger. Although I have great admiration for Mr. Bollinger for his courage and integrity in many other situations he has faced, including especially his leadership of the University of Michigan on the issue of affirmative action, I fear he mishandled the Ahmadinejad dilemma. It was certainly appropriate for Bollinger to introduce President Ahmadinejad and to take that opportunity, as he did, to explain why it was appropriate for Columbia to invite him.
But then Bollinger went further, and directly attacked Mr. Ahmadinejad, asserting that he is a "petty and cruel dictator" who denies the Holocaust, threatens to destroy Israel, promotes terrorism, and violates human rights. Some critics have criticized Bollinger for doing this because it was inhospitable and rude. But that misses the real objection, which is that Columbia University as an institution cannot legitimately take positions on such issues. Because a university must remain neutral on all matters of public policy that do not directly affect the university itself, it should not have a faculty vote, for example, on whether to condemn the war in Iraq, on whether Mr. Bush is a good President, or on whether Mr. Ahmadinejad violates human rights.
Of course, individual faculty members, students, staff, and alumni may state their own positions on such matters with complete freedom. But the university itself should not take such positions. The responsibility of a university is to facilitate debate and disagreement, not to stifle it by declaring an "official" university position. Whenever a university arrogates to itself the authority to "declare" certain positions to be "true" or "false," it necessarily chills the freedom of its faculty and students to take contrary -- officially disapproved -- positions. This should be anathema to any university.
Lee Bollinger is, of course, a member of the faculty as well as president of Columbia University. In his capacity as a faculty member, or in his capacity as an individual citizen, he is completely free to speak his own mind. But when he formally introduced Mr. Ahmadinejad, he was clearly speaking not as Lee Bollinger the professor or Lee Bollinger the citizen, but also as the Lee Bollinger the President of Columbia University. In that capacity, it was entirely inappropriate for him to suggest that Columbia has a party line on these matters. It is easy to see why Bollinger was tempted to do this in order to placate angry donors, alumni, faculty, and students, but he should have resisted the temptation. Columbia University as a university should have no views one way or the other about Mr. Ahmadinejad, period.
This brings me to the flap over MoveOn.org’s recent ad about "General Betray Us." The ad suggested that General Petraeus was “cooking the books for the White House” by presenting to the American public and to the Congress a misleading picture of the situation in Iraq. There is absolutely no question but that this statement was fully protected by the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court has often and clearly explained, the First Amendment embodies “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The MoveOn.org ad is well within the bounds of this fundamental constitutional protection and well within the long tradition in this nation of challenging our public officials – military as well as civilian.
Nonetheless, the Senate, with the support of many Democrats, adopted a resolution solely for the purpose of condemning the MoveOn.org ad. The resolution states as its supposed “findings” that General Petraeus was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as Commanding General in Iraq, has a stellar education, has served multiple combat tours in Iraq, has taken “a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” and has “amassed a distinguished record of military service.” It then characterizes MoveOn.org as a “liberal activist group” and “strongly condemns” MoveOn.org’s ad for “attacking the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all the members of the United States Armed Forces.”
Just as it is not the business of Columbia University to declare some views “right” and other views “wrong,” it is not the business of the United States Senate to enact resolutions condemning the constitutionally protected expression of private citizens. To be sure, many of us sometimes find the constitutionally protected expression of others offensive. Some of us may despise speech that espouses racial inferiority; some of us may find odious speech calling abortion murder; some of us may dislike the views of presidential candidates on the issue of gay marriage; and some of us may be offended by claims that torture is sometimes moral. In this nation, we are all free as individuals to “condemn” the views with which we disagree, and individual senators, acting in their individual capacities, are similarly free to declare their distaste for certain expression.
But it is not a legitimate role for the Senate of the United States to pass formal resolutions condemning the expression of constitutionally protected views. Do the supporters of this resolution honestly believe that it would be appropriate for the Senate officially to condemn those who question the integrity of Vice President Cheney, or the wisdom of Justice Scalia, or the candor of President Bush? Do they honestly believe that it would be appropriate for the Senate officially to condemn those who support campaign finance reform or greater gun regulation or an invasion of Iran?
Such expression, like MoveOn.org’s attack on General Petraeus, is not only protected by the First Amendment, but is essential to the functioning of a self-governing society. For the very same reasons that Columbia University should not declare particular ideas, perspectives, or positions “out of bounds,” so too the United States Senate should foster “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” public debate and not attempt to intimidate citizens by irresponsible public declarations of official condemnation. Such a tactic smacks of the excesses of the McCarthy Era.
Justice Louis Brandeis cautioned us exactly eighty years ago that “the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth,” that “it is hazardous” in a self-governing society for the government “to discourage thought” and free expression, and that “the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” Individual senators would have been perfectly within their rights to condemn the MoveOn.org ad, just as Mr. Bollinger would have been perfectly within his rights as an individual citizen or faculty member to condemn Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies. But neither President Bollinger nor the members of the Senate acted wisely or properly in conscripting the official voices of Columbia University and the United States Senate to declare a “politically correct” position for their university or their nation.