Sunday, September 10, 2006

Universities and Tolerance

Alan Dershowitz, The Boston Globe:
The Kennedy school of Government at Harvard University should not cancel the scheduled speech by former president Mohammad Khatami of Iran. Universities must never submit to censorial pressures by individuals or groups that disagree with, or are deeply offended by, a speaker's ideas. This does not mean that those who invited Khatami to deliver a lecture on the ``Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence" -- a subject on which, based on his lifetime of intolerance, he has nothing to contribute -- made a wise decision. Would they have invited David Duke to lecture on racial harmony or the late Meir Kahane to educate our students on the proper way to protest? I doubt it.

Khatami is somewhat different, of course, having been president of Iran (whatever that means ). But he is no longer in a position to influence Iranian policy or to answer hard questions about, for example, Iran's current nuclear program or its latest purge of secular faculty members. He could, perhaps, explain why the ``ethics of tolerance" did not inspire him to do anything when hundreds of dissident students were arrested and tortured during his tenure. READ MORE

Derek Bok, acting president of Harvard, is right when he says that ``a wide exchange of views" is essential to a university. But there are only two tenable positions a university may take in this regard: the first is that they have no substantive standards for who should be invited -- in other words any speaker who wishes to engage in ``a wide exchange of views," and who is invited by any student or faculty group, must be entitled to stand on the Harvard podium. Under this ``taxi cab" approach -- a cab driver must accept any rider who can pay the fare -- Duke and Kahane would have to be invited to speak if there were students or teachers who wanted to hear them, regardless of who might be offended. The second alternative is to have substantive standards -- such as academic achievement or political prominence -- that are applied rigorously and equally, without regard to whether the speaker is left or right, offensive to Jews or to Arabs, etc.

Most universities fall into the uncomfortable middle. They have implicit standards, but they refuse to articulate them or apply them with what I call ``ism equity." The truth is that Duke is not getting invited to Harvard any time soon, but Khatami has been. Is the only reason for this difference that Duke is a failed politician who lost his bid for election in Louisiana, while Khatami was ``elected" (appointed? anointed?) in Iran? I don't think so. The difference may relate, at least in part, to the relative unacceptability in this university community of their substantive views. Duke would offend more members of the Harvard community than Khatami would. If this is even partly true, it is indefensible.

If offensiveness were ever to be recognized as a basis for distinguishing among the acceptable and unacceptable, then any group could exercise the equivalent of a ``heckler's veto." If offensiveness to some groups were to be deemed more deserving of consideration than offensives to other groups, that would be unfair discrimination. For example, if a speaker offensive to Muslim students were permitted to speak, while a speaker offensive to Hindu students were not permitted, that would constitute bigotry against Muslims. But if offensiveness to any group were sufficient to ban a speaker and if ``ism equality" prevailed, then in this age of the thin-skinned and easily offended, only the most inoffensive and boring speakers would be heard.

Both Duke and Khatami are racists with extremist and violent designs for repressing political dissent and ethnic opposition. Only Khatami, though, has had a chance to put his designs into effect. Khatami, however, is seen as a virulent enemy of the US administration, and therein may lie some of the discrepancy in receptiveness afforded by the Kennedy School.

I won't catalog Khatami's long history of hateful deeds and proclamations. I'm eager to hear Khatami's explanation for his and his country's treatment of women, homosexuals, secularists, Baha'i, and student reformers. And I am confident that Harvard's student body will have the courage to ask Khatami the sorts of questions that mainstream media interviewers have either avoided or have let Khatami evade with empty platitudes.

At the end of the day, Khatami will speak at Harvard, because Americans believe in and enjoy the sorts of academic liberties and openness to ideas that Khatami himself did so much to squash when he was in power. That's as it should be. I only hope that those in the Kennedy School who invited Khatami did so out of a genuine commitment to unqualified open dialogue, rather than the belief that offensiveness to some groups is more deserving of solicitude than is offensiveness to others, or worse yet, substantive agreement with some of Khatami's oppressive worldview.

Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard University. His most recent book is ``Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways."