Since its creation in June 1945, the United Nations has played host to a virtual rogue's gallery of modern history's most controversial leaders. It has provided a forum for such "notables" as:
- Nikita Khrushchev, who, while definitely banging his shoe, did not make his infamous "We will bury you!" statement from its rostrum.
- Fidel Castro, who delivered tortuously long rants against the U.S.A.
- Yasser Arafat, who came wearing a holster.
- Idi Amin Dada who, with all the sangfroid one might expect from a fifth-grade dropout equated Zionism with racism. [He got a standing ovation].
- Hugo Chavez, who called President Bush the "devil," "an alcoholic," and "a sick man." And just this week,
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Prior to addressing the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad -- he of the nearly unpronounceable five-syllable last name -- was given a forum at Columbia University. The speech and ensuing Q&A session were broadcast live on most television outlets here in the states. What viewers saw was Columbia President Lee Bollinger's "take-no-prisoners" introduction which scored the Irani president for his country's persecution of women, students, homosexuals, members of the Baha'i faith, and journalists, and lambasted him for his Holocaust denial and threat to exterminate Israel. Near the middle of his 2,176-word introduction, Bollinger said, "Let's be clear at the beginning, Mr. President . . . you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."
One can easily agree or disagree with the propriety and mannerliness of Bollinger's introduction. It is my feeling that having gone so far out on a limb by inviting Ahmadinejad in the first place, Bollinger was attempting to save face with University trustees who thought him out of his mind. One of Bollinger's most important comments went largely unreported in the press: "This event has nothing whatsoever to do with any 'rights' of the speaker, but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves." In other words, The First Amendment is alive and well in the United States of America.
The precise nature and tone of President Ahmadinejad's remarks, answers and evasions are irrelevant to this piece; they have been exhaustively parsed, dissected, reamed-steamed-and-dry-cleaned by everyone from Bill O'Reilly to Ariana Huffington. Most everyone in public life has weighed in on whether or not he should have been given the Columbia forum in the first place. True to form, most conservative stalwarts found his mere presence at Columbia an affront to every soldier from George Washington to David Petraeus. "Damn free speech!" they roared, "This man is the devil incarnate! He has no right to an audience! Arrest him!"
Just as predictably, President Bush weighed in with a rambling comment full of sound and fury, signifying God knows what: "He's the head of a state sponsor of terror, and yet an institution in our country gives him the chance to express his point of view, which certainly speaks to the freedoms of the country. I'm not sure I'd offer the same invitation, but nonetheless it speaks volumes about the greatness, really, of America. We're confident enough to let a person express his views." Asked to be more precise, about how he felt, he responded, "I guess its OK by me."
Interestingly, a national CNN poll taken the day before Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia found that 72% of those questioned -- 72%! -- were in favor of his being permitted to speak. This would seem to say a great deal about how much the American public respects, supports and reveres our First Amendment freedoms.
At virtually the same time that Ahmadinejad was "wowing" his Columbia audience with moronic comments -- "Iran has no homosexuals," "The Holocaust did happen but we have to do a lot more research" -- the United States Senate was putting its Mark of Cain on the very First Amendment rights being enjoyed by the Iranian leader over at Morningside Heights.
The issue at hand, of course, was the Senate's condemnation of Moveon.org's "infamous" full-page New York Times ad headlined "GENERAL PETRAEUS OR GENERAL BETRAY US?" In this ad, which is as fully covered by the First Amendment as are the words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 2-million plus strong group characterized General Petraeus as " . . . a military man constantly at odds with the facts." The ad, which was a preemptive strike across the bow of Patraeus' then-forthcoming Congressional testimony, noted that "In 2004, he said there was 'tangible progress' in Iraq and that 'Iraqi leaders are stepping forward.'" The ad went on to note that "Every independent report on the ground situation in Iraq shows that the surge has failed. Yet the general claims a reduction in violence." It concludes by saying, "General Petraeus will not admit what everyone knows: Iraq is mired in an unwinnable religious civil war. We may hear of a plan to withdraw a few thousand American troops. But we won't hear what Americans are desperate to hear: a timetable for withdrawing all our troops . . . . Today, before Congress and before the American people, General Petraeus is likely to become General Betray Us."
Whether or not one agrees with the ad's point of view is also irrelevant; it is protected by the First Amendment. So what did the Senate do even as Ahmadinejad was "frigastulating" over at Columbia? They voted 72-25 [with three not voting] to pass "Senate Amendment 2934 to Senate Amendment 2011 to House Resolution 1585, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2008." 22 Senate Democrats joined with virtually every Senate Republican to pass a resolution essentially damning Moveon.Org's right to free speech!
The resolution they so overwhelmingly passed expressed "The sense of the Senate that General David H. Petraeus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq, deserves the full support of the Senate and strongly condemn[s] personal attacks on the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all members of the United States Armed Forces." While I may not be the shiniest apple in the barrel, I cannot for the life of me understand how the Moveon ad could be construed as a "personal attack" upon either General Petraeus or members of our Armed Forces.
By the way, if its the play-on-words "General Betray Us" that has them so terribly shook up, they may be interested to know that the term actually originated with none other than Rush Limbaugh!
In any event, what the Senate so forthrightly condemned was something called FREE SPEECH. In going over the vote tally, I was both saddened and amazed to see that this noxious "Sense of the Senate" resolution was supported by such liberal stalwarts as Maryland's Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, California's Dianne Feinstein, and Vermont's Patrick Leahy. [Note to our Florida readers: Senator Bill Nelson voted in favor of the resolution.]
Is it any wonder that Congress has a whopping 11% approval rating in the most recent poll?
For more than 200 years, Freedom of Speech has been an illustrious hallmark in American society. Yes, it does have a limit or two: back in 1919, the Supreme Court, in Schenck v. U.S., created the "Clear and Present Danger" rule. Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, "The question is whether the words used . . . are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." The Schenck decision is famous for the phrase "shouting 'fire' at a crowded theater." Eventually Holmes' "Clear and Present Danger" rule was weakened by a less restrictive "bad tendency" test [Whitney v. Calif. 1927] and further sapped by the "imminent lawless action" test [Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969].
In any event, the Senate's action is frightening beyond compare. At a time when we are faced with warrantless wiretaps, forced rendition and the curtailment of habeas corpus, one wonders how many more freedoms we are going to lose. The Moveon.Org ad simply does not pass the "imminent lawless action" test.
I guess the best way to be assured of free speech in the future is to become an Iranian despot.
Just ask Mahmoud . . . he ought to know.
©Kurt F. Stone 2007