It looks like Columbia University will indeed play host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the occasion of his visit to the UN General Assembly. From what I have heard, competition for tickets to the event is fierce. Everyone seems to want to hear this man speak. I think those responsible for this event are making a mistake.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger believes that he will be able to use the occasion to put "pointed and challenging questions" to Ahmadinejad. In particular, Bollinger seemed to have in mind the Iranian president's record of Holocaust denial. While I applaud the intentions of Bollinger and others, who want to use Ahmadinejad's lecture as a forum to critique the Iranian president's past remarks and the regime's policies, I fear that they are miscalculating.
All of us in the academy are interested in the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth in which it is supposed to result. But we also accept restrictions on the search for knowledge. For example, ethical scholars will not use data acquired from medical experiments that were conducted on human subjects without their permission. The ethical test with respect to having Ahadinejad speak at Columbia University should not be based on his stance toward U.S. policy in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin or China's Hu Jintao oppose many key aspects of American foreign policy. They also head regimes with less than stellar democratic credentials. But this is not the issue.
What matters most, in the context of an invitation extended by a university, is Ahmadinejad's public denial of the Holocaust in the past. This is not because the Holocaust is inherently "sacred." The same would apply if Ahmadinejad denied that the French Revolution never happened. Rather, his pseudo-academic initiatives to question a supposed "taboo" on free inquiry into the genocide of European Jewry (read: his effort to engage in willful distortion and negation of a subject whose historicity has been confirmed by thousands of scholarly publications) challenge the core of the university's guiding principles. The public sphere that the university presents is not a free-for-all open to every crackpot and conspiracy theorist with a fondness for spinning yarns. Such a model of the university would drive the pursuit of truth into intellectual bankruptcy. Professors and students would be occupied permanently with fending off unlimited attacks from those unbound by the chains of logic, procedure, respect, and the standards of academic disciplines. Unfortunately, the very admission of such individuals into the world of scholarship bestows credibility on them.
While I would not equate Wolf Blitzer of "The Situation Room" with the academy, I think it is worth watching his interview (see YouTube box above) with Holocaust denier David Duke to see how damaging it can be to give people like these even a modicum of respectability. They do not deserve to enter our classrooms and lecture halls.
Unfortunately, Proverbs gives conflicting advice. In 26:4 we read, "Don't answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest you too will be like him," while 26:5 tell us "Answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest he will appear clever in his own eyes."