Tomorrow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will speak at Columbia University. There are some who argue that universities should not invite controversial speakers. There are some who argue that Iran is the "enemy"—a member of the axis of evil—and once an enemy has been identified, and vilified, you must never allow them to speak in their own defense. It's especially horrible, according to these people, to allow a publicly-funded university to sponsor such a person.
Those people are dead wrong. Fortunately, the President of Columbia University has the gumption to stand up to those who would destroy the universities and free society [President Bollinger's Statement About President Ahmadinejad's Scheduled Appearance].
I would like to add a few comments on the principles that underlie this event. Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas—to understand the world as it is and as it might be. To fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.If you don't understand this then you don't understand anything about the purpose of a university and the importance of listening to the other side.
I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.
That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.