OPEN UNIVERSITY SEPTEMBER 7, 2006
by Daniel DreznerFormer Iranian president Mohammad Khatami is scheduled to speak at the Kennedy School of Government on September 10th. Marcella Bombardieri and Maria Sacchetti have a front-pager in the Boston Globe on the minor controversy this is causing in the state of Massachusetts:
The dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government yesterday defended the decision to invite Mohammad Khatami to speak on the eve of Sept. 11, saying the United States needs dialogue with its enemies.
Do we listen to those that we disagree with, and vigorously challenge them, or do we close our ears completely?" said David Ellwood, the Kennedy School's dean, in an interview with the Globe.
Ellwood said he was disappointed in Governor Mitt Romney's refusal to give state protection to the former Iranian president during his visit. The dean said he approved the invitation, first proposed by faculty members when they learned that Khatami would be speaking at the United Nations. He said decisions on whether to invite political figures with troubling records are made on a case-by-case basis....
In deciding to invite Khatami, officials considered that he had been granted a US visa, that he is working with the United Nations, and that he is "sometimes seen as a reformer," Ellwood said.
Sept. 10 was the only time available, the dean said, and emphasized that Khatami would not be allowed to visit unless he were willing to take unscripted questions....
Controversy over Harvard's invitation continued to mount yesterday as a Boston-area Jewish group condemned his visit, and a talk radio host encouraged listeners to lodge complaints.
"As an alum, I'm personally offended," said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, who has a master's degree from the Kennedy School. "We believe in freedom of speech, but I really question the judgment of Harvard giving him a platform."
To my knowledge, there is no connection between Iran and the 9/11 attacks, so the timing is a red herring issue.
I have no love for Khatami's policies--labeled a reformer, he was largely ineffective as Iran's president. However, given the high degree of miscommunication between the U.S. and Iran, I fail to see why he should be barred from speaking. (In the case of Iran, more dialogue might have the added bonus of preventing what Fareed Zakaria has labeled the "10-feet tall" problem of exaggerating the capabilities and intentions of our adversaries.)
On the other hand, that's my default position on even the most incendiary of speakers--the damage of having them speak is usually less than the damage from trying to prevent them from speaking.
Now unlike some of my colleagues here at Open U., I have had the good fortune of evading avoiding administrative responsibilities for most of my academic career. A question to those who have had to carry that burden--are there any red lines that, once crossed, justify banning a speaker from campus?