Liberal free-speech hypocrisy

I once angered some of my more liberal friends by suggesting that I could count the number of folks I know on both the left and right who actually believe in free speech, but recent events convince me that I was right.

Everyone believes in his or her own right to protection under the First Amendment, but few seem willing to really come to the defense of those they find tacky, obnoxious or wrong. Indeed, the ranks of the most overt rhetorical champions of free speech include some who are perfectly willing to stand up for those they agree with or who will attack people they don’t like, but are prone to walk away from those expressing views they find troubling.

This, as it turns out, is especially true of political and academic liberals who weren’t, for example, all that concerned about — or even joined in — protests that prevented the late Jeane Kirkpatrick from speaking on several campuses, but are now hell-bent on defending Iran’s crazed president’s right to appear at Columbia University. They seem to believe that since Mr. Ahmadinejad shares their distaste of George W. Bush, his are views that students should and perhaps must hear.

Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, is as good an example of the type as is likely to be found. He says neither he nor his university will be intimidated by those who are offended by Ahmadinejad’s desire to finish the job on the Jews that Hitler began and doesn’t seem much concerned about whether Iran allows those who disagree the right to speak there. He would argue, I’m sure, that had we all had an opportunity to hear Hitler or Stalin, we would have benefited from the experience.

Maybe they’re right, but if they think Ahmadinejad is interested in a rational discussion of his position on the Holocaust or the domestic intolerance of the regime he fronts, they are deluding themselves. If he is to appear, he should be required to debate, to air his views so that the world can see him for what he is rather than be subjected to a meaningless anti-Western rant.

But Columbia isn’t really all that hot on debates. When Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrest was invited not just to speak but to debate the merits of his position on immigration, the invitation was ultimately revoked because Bollinger and his buddies were concerned that it would be difficult to carry on a civil debate in light of the threat that protesters would disrupt the event. Gilchrest had been invited to speak at Columbia a year earlier, but had to be escorted off the stage as radicals rushed the podium to shut him up.

The brave Bellinger says no one will intimidate Columbia into denying this Hitler wannabe from Tehran a platform, but wouldn’t stand up for Gilchrest’s rights. In fact, he and other Columbia officials implicitly blamed Gilchrest for the problem by suggesting that it was his views that might stimulate disruptive protests. I don’t know Mr. Gilchrest, but while one may agree or disagree with his views on immigration, to act as if he has less right to express them than Mr. Ahmadinejad says far more about Bellinger and the attitudes of those running our universities than any of us really wanted to know.

The basic problem is that America’s liberals no longer really believe in free speech for any but themselves. Members of Congress go around threatening to criminalize global warming “deniers”; the management of The New York Times leads the charge to pass restrictive campaign finance reforms outlawing advocacy speech and then violates the very laws they sought for the benefit of their left-wing allies, all while seeking to shut down “right-wing talk radio” because they find themselves unable to compete with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Christians and Jews are discouraged from even mentioning their religious views on many campuses and in most public schools, lest by doing so they offend non-believers or those who find their religious views offensive, but we are urged to listen carefully to those who attack their religions lest we appear close-minded or bigoted. We have created in our drive for “political correctness” an elite society that encourages those who want to shut up their opponents for saying things they don’t like.

The Founders would, I suspect, have been shocked by the direction in which we are moving, because it is clear that those who cannot win a debate in the public arena are doing here what they have done elsewhere with great success: restricting access to the arena to those with whom they disagree.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com