Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tough Questions on Free Speech

It was a remarkable week for the idea of freedom of expression, and yet you saw precious little analysis of some of the tough questions surrounding free speech in the media. This should be a week we're all contemplating the limits of this issue, so I thought I'd open the floor to thoughts.

The first case involved a student who broke protocol and jumped ahead of a line after question time to ask a question of Senator John Kerry. While the senator appeared to be willing to answer the question, police attempted to escort the student out, and in what seems to me like antics for the camera, the student resisted and was Tasered.

The second case was an MIT student who wore what looked like a bomb under her dress to the airport to pick up her boyfriend, when she was instead picked up and arrested.

The third case is the brouhaha over Iranian President Ahmedinijad's scheduled talk at Columbia.

Depending on your political persuasion, some of these are slam dunks. Well, I beg to differ.

Start with the MIT student. It's obvious she was stupid to arrive in an airport posing what could be perceived as a security threat, and it's obvious that the TSA were quite right in arresting her. What we do need to think about is how far we'll take that argument in the future. A friend of mine told me some time back about a "Politically Incorrect" Halloween party they had, where one of the characters was dressed as a suicide bomber. May that be perceived as a threat when such a person walks on the street? My own university had an issue with a student facing civil and administrative penalties for practicing for a play with a fake gun.

My view on the Tasering of the student is that it was quite the right course. After all, here was a student who was being disruptive to an event and resisting eviction. But even that isn't as cut-and-dry in my mind. After all, this was a public university, and it's certainly worth discussing how appropriate it is to attempt to censor or regulate speech in such an institution.

Then to Mr Ahmedinijad. On the one hand, this is obviously a guy who could be our #1 enemy, and we are providing him with a platform for propoganda. And yet, how could we censor a man who we are critical of because he's against free societies. I actually applaud Columbia for negotiating the terms so that the Iranian president will have to answer any questions from the audience - sometimes the best disinfectant is sunlight!

But those are my views. You may have others, and I'd love to hear from you.

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