Volume 76, Number 23 | October 25 - 31, 2006

Talking Point

Columbia protesters need to take Free Speech 101

By Ed Gold

Some allegedly liberal groups on the Columbia University campus are giving liberalism a bad name, allowing conservatives to goad them into ignoring the First Amendment.

My recollection of my years at Columbia informs me that all students had to study American history, which always included a discussion of the Constitution, and more particularly the First Amendment protecting free speech.

Apparently, that message didn’t register with student protesters, turned into a mob, who prevented an anti-immigrant right-winger from talking about the alleged “illegal alien invasion crisis facing America.”

Seven minutes into his provocative speech before Columbia’s Republican Club, Jim Gilchrist, leader of the vigilante-style Minutemen Project, was besieged by a mob. The Los Angeles Times stated that the “Columbia melee began after two students rushed from behind the stage and unfurled a banner in Spanish, English and Arabic that read “No One Is Illegal.”

Several dozen protesters from the audience then jumped onto the stage, past security guards and ropes, knocked over the lectern and sent Gilchrist’s glasses flying to the floor. Among others, members of the campus Chicano Caucus and the International Socialist Organization were involved. A conspicuous irony was the crowd calling Gilchrist a “racist,” while the Minutemen blog suggests that they attacked Marvin Stewart of the Minutemen, who is black, calling him “nigger.” Stewart has told his story to the police and threatens a lawsuit.

Summing up the rationale for the attack on Gilchrist, a Columbia junior, Ryan Fukamori of the Columbia Asian-Anerican Alliance, insisted: “These are racist individuals” — referring to the Minutemen — “heading a project that terrorizes immigrants on the U.S.-Mexican border.

“They have no right to be able to speak here.”

Wrong! As a very harried Columbia president, Lee Bollinger, explained: “The disruption...that resulted in the termination of an event organized by the Columbia College Republicans…represents in my judgment one of the most serious breaches of academic faith that can occur in a university. … We must speak out to deplore a disruption that threatens the central principle to which we are institutionally dedicated, namely to respect the rights of others to express their views.”

Columbia has been the scene of a great number of free-speech tussles, and back in 1946 I was involved in one such dispute involving of all people, Winston Churchill!

Churchill had just made his “Iron Curtain” speech, which formalized the Cold War against the Soviet Union. He was then scheduled to make a speech at Columbia where he would receive an honorary degree.

The far-left campus club, American Youth for Democracy, didn’t believe Churchill should be allowed to speak at Columbia and threatened to throw a picket line in front of Low Memorial Library and prevent his entry. The Student Council, of which I was a member, met with the A.Y.D. leadership. An alternative protest was organized in one of the school’s large auditoriums, and the A.Y.D.’ers were persuaded to picket Churchill but not block his entry.

It does require great restraint at times to let people with obnoxious views speak, but one of the bedrocks of the Constitution is to protect the right to be obnoxious.

Gilchrist, for example, gives lip service to the Constitution, and he also has nice words to say about Phyllis Schlafly, who is to the right of Atilla the Hun. He names as “sinister groups” the A.C.L.U., the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. He uses scary slogans like “We do the job the government won’t do,” talks about his work as “Operation Sovereignty” and says his aim is to “Save America.”

On the volatile immigration issue, there are far left Hispanic groups that want the Southwest, including Texas, returned to Mexico. (Giving Texas back to Mexico has some attraction, but then you remember the state gave us Ann Richards, Molly Ivins and the Dixie Chicks.)

Nicholas Lehmann, dean of Columbia School of Journalism and a writer for The Nation magazine, sees the Columbia Republicans as being motivated in part “to deliberately provoke” the majority liberal establishment on campus. But he adds, “They are justified in inviting controversial speakers as long as the audience is part of the Columbia community.”

The Republicans were actually vetoed on one of their proposed invitations. They planned an event called “From Hate to Love,” including invitations to former members of the Hitler Youth Movement. But they also invited 115 outsiders, whom the university said, “they could not identify or vouch for,” so they were turned down for security reasons.

In the ’60s, Greenwich Village had a free speech brouhaha that may well have cost one of its ambitious political leaders a chance at public office.

Martin Berger, a district leader out of Village Independent Democrats, and an attorney, was asked by George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the National Socialist White People’s Party — read Nazi — to represent him after he had been barred from speaking in Union Square. Berger agreed. He soon discovered how difficult it was to raise money for a political race, particularly in the Jewish community. The only reward was that he followed his conscience, remaining faithful to the Constitution.

As for all those students who let the Republicans goad them into becoming a mob and forgetting the Constitution, President Bollinger should set up a remedial course called Free Speech 101 and require the protesters to attend.

He might invite Norman Siegel as a guest lecturer. Siegel has it right in a letter to The New York Times:

“Free speech is promised on the neutral principle that everyone has the fundamental right to say what he or she wants on any subject, regardless of the contents of one’s views and the stridency of one’s language.”

Except, of course, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.


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