Administrators say they won’t censor speakers

Sara Fay

Following the controversial appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University, Northwestern administrators said they only would prevent a controversial speaker from visiting campus if it is determined that a security threat could be posed.

“Student groups have the right to invite speakers to campus, but whether we could stop them … if it comes to issues of safety and security, we definitely could stop it,” Vice President of University Relations Alan Cubbage said.

Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president, invited Ahmadinejad to speak, but many students protested during his appearance. A crowd of students held signs and booed during Ahmadinejad’s speech, during which he outlined his view that the Holocaust should be treated as a historical theory instead of fact. Bollinger preceded Ahmadinejad’s remarks with a 10-minute speech assailing the Iranian president’s stance on the Holocaust and his government, saying that he showed “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”

Ahmadinejad’s views were the subject of controversy at NU nearly two years ago when tenured McCormick Prof. Arthur Butz, a Holocaust revisionist, told Iranian media he supported Ahmadinejad, after the Iranian president called the Holocaust a myth. NU students and faculty condemned Butz in petitions and letters, and University President Henry Bienen issued a statement at the time calling Butz’s position “a contemptible insult to all decent and feeling people.”

At NU, student organizations are free to invite any guest to campus to speak on any subject without obtaining permission from administrators. The contracts for those speakers are processed and signed by Helen Wood, director of the Center for Student Involvement, because students are not legal representatives of the university, she said. Wood said that the university would not prevent a speaker from coming unless there was a potential campus safety issue.

“In response to whether or not we would invite a speaker to campus, we look at safety and security for the campus community,” Wood said. “For someone like Ahmadinejad, we would look at whether we could provide safety and security for that person as an individual and for the campus community, but other than that, we don’t ever stop student groups from inviting someone to campus based on politics. We wouldn’t censor – we’re looking at safety and security.”

Sam Berry, a member of the community relations team of Students Helping Organize Awareness of the Holocaust, said while she does not agree with President Ahmadinejad’s views, she would support his right to be on campus.

“I would definitely be OK with the university extending an invitation to someone like that to come, and I think that everyone in SHOAH is for free speech, but our main concern is making sure that there was an appropriate counter response,” the Communication sophomore said.

Berry also said she was disappointed in the way Bollinger insulted Ahmadinejad in his introduction.

“It didn’t look good for America or Columbia,” Berry said. “He should have had scholarly evidence disproving what he said instead of calling him names. I could come up with a lot of good names I would want to call (Ahmadinejad), but I wouldn’t say them in that forum.”

Wood said that she has only turned down one request to bring a speaker to campus, and it was because there was no venue on campus to accommodate the expected crowds.

“The only time we’ve said no in recent history was six years ago, and we said no to Snoop Dogg simply because the only venue we could put him in was Patten Gym, and we knew we couldn’t provide safety and security for it,” Wood said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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