Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Khatami, Cheney, whatever: misunderstanding freedom of speech

Last night I was talking to my fellow Sanity Squad members after taping this week's podcast (no, it's not online yet, but should be soon).

The session you hear is usually just the tip of the iceberg for us. As I've said before, we bloggers can talk, and after our tongues are loosened by the thirty or so minutes allotted to the taping, we usually go on--and on and on and on. And of course, we're even more fascinating--as well as sublimely humorous--with the recording device turned off, but you'll just have to take my word for it.

Last night we got into--among many other things--a post-taping discussion of Khatami's invitation to speak at Harvard. We all agreed that Harvard shouldn't have tendered the invitation; after all, why give him such an illustrious forum? I said that Harvard's argument in its defense is that all views should be heard in the marketplace of ideas, and that truth will out. We all were in agreement, however, that in that case he should at least have been invited to debate with someone on the other side. Netanyahu came to mind, or perhaps Dershowitz, but it could have been any number of people.

Of course, that wasn't done. Why not? Well, for one thing, Khatami probably would have declined the pleasure if he'd had to face an opponent. If there's one thing Khatami is about, I think we can safely say that it's not free debate in the marketplace of ideas.

Then today I came across this article by Caroline Glick that appeared in yesterday's Jerusalem Post. The subject is Khatami's invitation to speak at Harvard as compared with a visit by none other than Dick Cheney, who entered the Harvard Club through a back door to evade two hundred protesters who greeted him when he arrived to give a speech there recently.

Well, I happened to have been at the Khatami protest (forgot to bring my camera, folks, but here are Sol's shots) and although I'm not an expert at crowd estimation, I'd say there were a goodly number of protesters there, but that the number came in well under two hundred.

Ms. Glick also seems to feel that there may be more hatred for Cheney at Harvard than for Khatami. And in her article she makes the exact point the Sanity Squad was discussing in our off-the-record talk last night (could she have been overhearing us through some sort of Rovian wiretap?)--that, if Harvard's intent in inviting Khatami was to offer a free flow of ideas so that truth would emerge, it would have been good to have had an opposing side present at Khatami's speech. She agrees, however, that such an invitation would probably have put the kibosh on the whole shebang.

No, I'm not saying that every single speaker at Harvard has to have an opposing viewpoint presented at the same time. That would be ludicrous, for either side. But certainly for a speaker who represents such abhorrent polices as Khatami, it would be a good idea.

The bottom line is that there is no requirement that Harvard offer our enemies a bully pulpit, nor is there any prohibition on Harvard's doing so. It simply is a matter of the school's judgment and policy. And given the present state of relations with Iran--actually, the same state of relations we've had for virtually all the years since the Islamic revolution there in 1979--inviting Khatami to speak at Harvard is a bit like having invited Hermann Goering over to speak at Harvard during the late 30s. I haven't checked it out yet, but my guess is that it didn't happen. The Greatest Generation wasn't quite as stupid and self-destructive as we are.

One of these days I plan to write at greater length about the misconceptions many people have about freedom of speech (we'll see--I've got notes for several hundred as yet unwritten articles, so I've got my work cut out for me). But the summary version is that, when last I looked, the Bill of Rights states that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is mainly concerned with prohibiting government intrusion into the right to speak out. It's not absolute, of course; there are always restrictions, most famously that the government has a right to prohibit the shouting of "fire" in a crowded theater. But there is no requirement that any non-governmental institution invite all comers to spout off from a podium. Of course, if Harvard chooses to do so, the government can't stop it. That's why Governor Romney, as a state agent, had no ability to keep Khatami away from Harvard. Instead, he was limited to refusing to supply Khatami with state support for the trip, such as an official state escort (the Federal government provided the main security) or state VIP treatment. The only other thing Romney could do was to use his freedom of speech to harshly criticize Harvard for offering the invite.

But somehow, for some people, the guarantees of prohibition of governmental restriction on freedom of speech has somehow morphed into the thought that one must actively provide an opportunity to speak for those who oppose you or are against you. No. Let them speak on a street corner. Let them publish a leaflet and distribute it in Harvard Square. And yes, of course, if you wish to provide them with a forum in your institution, I can't stop you. But I can exercise my right to freedom of speech by criticizing you for doing so.

The argument that having someone like Khatami speak at Harvard is a good thing because it furthers discussion in the free marketplace of ideas sounds good on paper (or on the computer screen). But in reality it doesn't always work that way; it's best to use some judgment about this. Here's the much-maligned Wikipedia (how's that for the marketplace of ideas?) on the subject:

A classic argument for protecting freedom of speech as a fundamental right is that it is essential for the discovery of truth. This argument is particularly associated with the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."...

This marketplace of ideas rationale for freedom of speech has been criticized by scholars on the grounds that it is wrong to assume all ideas will enter the marketplace of ideas, and even if they do, some ideas may drown out others merely because they enjoy dissemination through superior resources.

The marketplace is also criticized for its assumption that truth will necessarily triumph over falsehood. It is visible throughout history that people may be swayed by emotion rather than reason, and even if truth ultimately prevails, enormous harm can occur in the interim.

"Dissemination through superior resources" does seem to be the very definition of giving a speech at Harvard. So, why encourage Khatami in this way? Granted, he's not Ahmadinejad (is he next on the speaker invite list?) But he's bad enough.

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