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Freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to use it

Mike Pence at the University of Virginia

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the University of Virginia on April 12.

Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights."

On April 12, former Vice President Mike Pence gave a talk at the University of Virginia as part of the Ken & Janice Shengold Advancing Freedom Lecture Series. His appearance was sponsored by Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative students’ organization founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1960. Tickets were free and the lecture was open to all. After the invitation was announced, as is inevitable these days when a controversial speaker is invited to a college campus, fierce protests ensued with demands that Pence not be granted such a prestigious forum.

An editorial in the Cavalier Daily, the university’s student newspaper established in 1890, was particularly scathing. “For Pence,” it read, “gay couples signify a ‘societal collapse,’ Black lives do not matter, transgender individuals and immigrants do not deserve protection, and the pandemic should not be taken seriously.” The editorial went on to accuse Pence of at least tacitly encouraging violence against marginalized groups, with the college administration complicit by its willingness to provide him a platform. “The University’s silence is deafening. Do not mistake this for neutrality, however. To be silent in the face of those like Pence is a choice — in this case, a choice to fail to protect the lives of those on Grounds who Pence blatantly threatens through his rhetoric and policies.”

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The editorial instigated as much of a backlash as had the invitation, and the resulting kerfuffle made national headlines. Liberals decried Pence’s opportunity to foist hate speech on impressionable students, while conservatives brayed about censorship and cancel culture, as if they, unlike the left, believed in a free exchange of ideas.

The university refused to back down and Pence was allowed to give his talk, in which he exploited the opportunity to denounce “woke” culture and defend “freedom,” although he did not address his advocacy of positions that would deny freedom to the groups mentioned in the editorial. The audience was enthusiastic and, since those in attendance were almost exclusively conservative, the questions were a series of thinly disguised talking points that allowed Pence to appear both reasonable and fair-minded.

It might be useful to consider how the event might have played out had the left not largely boycotted the lecture, but instead had grabbed up a bunch of the tickets to create a more diverse audience. For that, one need look back more than a decade, when a similar controversy yielded a far different outcome.

In September 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited by Columbia University to speak at the School of International and Public Affairs’ annual World Leaders Forum, after which he would take questions from the audience. Unlike Pence, who is supported by roughly half the American population, Ahmadinejad was almost universally reviled, holding views so extreme and with a manner so boorish as to border on caricature.

Protests were vociferous and vitriolic. Jews in particular were incensed — Ahmadinejad had insisted Israel should be “wiped off the map” and that the Holocaust was a “myth.” Dov Hikind, a New York assemblyman from Brooklyn and an orthodox Jew, compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler. Many Christians were equally appalled. James Gennaro, a New York City councilman, grumbled that Columbia “is making a mockery of civilized discourse by allowing this madman to participate.” Others pointed out that Iran was supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents and secretly building nuclear weapons.

Like the administration at Virginia, Columbia refused to back down. The university’s president, Lee Bollinger, chose to moderate the talk himself. But Bollinger had no intention of being foolhardy — everyone at Columbia remembered the student takeover in 1968. He decided to abandon good manners and introduce Ahmadinejad as if he were a prosecutor seeking the maximum penalty for a pedophile.

Bollinger, with Ahmadinejad sitting just feet from him, described his invited guest as “a petty and cruel dictator” and noted, “According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in Iran so far this year — twenty-one of them on the morning of September 5th alone. This annual total includes at least two children — further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors.” He ridiculed Ahmadinejad’s views on the Holocaust as “simply ridiculous.” Bollinger closed his remarks by saying, “I am only a professor who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.”

To his credit, Ahmadinejad refused to take the bait. He did his best to be charming, or at least disarming. He admitted that the Holocaust had occurred. For a time, it appeared that those who feared giving Ahmadinejad the opportunity to falsify his image had been correct.

But then it was time for questions. Ahmadinejad did his best to duck and dodge past accusations he heard all too often, but then one student asked about the regime’s record of executing homosexuals. Ahmadinejad replied, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country. ... In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”

The audience’s reaction was immediate and unmistakable. They laughed! The more Ahmadinejad tried to justify his answer, the more the audience guffawed. And that laughter did more to expose the absurdity and hypocrisy of both Ahmadinejad’s defense of Iran’s human rights record and his country’s faux commitment to fairness and common decency than 100 position papers from the State Department or even graphic footage on cable news.

If those who had objected to Pence’s human rights record and what they see as his faux commitment to fairness and common decency had chosen to attend his talk en masse and asked the same sort of difficult questions, perhaps he would not have left Charlottesville feeling quite so good about himself.

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