Dershowitz promotes free speech at Columbia

March 29, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: Reader letters below article.

By Wendy Francois

March 28, 2006

No matter where you fall in the political realm, the recent talks that took place on campus provide useful insight into the current state of affairs at Columbia. There is a clear and frightening absence and rejection of healthy dialogue even in classrooms.

I am not someone who holds a stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I attended the controversial Finkelstein event to hear a different perspective and the Dershowitz event to express dismay about his stance on torture. At the Finkelstein event I witnessed peaceful protests, and I chose to parallel those protests. In response to my peaceful decision to protest, Dershowitz walked up to me, took my sign out of my lap, ripped it, and called it (and me, I suppose) idiotic, among other patronizing acts. I cannot begin to explain what I felt when my fellow students were laughing and clapping at Dershowitz’s immature and disrespectful reaction to my lawful and human right to dissent peacefully.

The students, however, are not completely at fault. There are systemic things in this University, such as the curriculum, that allow dissent to be suppressed. The fact that the Dershowitz talk was not as heavily monitored or attended by the administration as the Finkelstein event was so disheartening. It raises questions of the reality of the “freedom of opinion and dialogue” that Columbia’s administration purports to encourage and ensure for all opinions and students. I could feel rifts fermenting between the student body as I listened to the talks; they allowed their personal political views to condone disrespect and pre-emptive judgments.

The lack of safeguards to ensure a safe and respectful debate suggest that if you have certain political views on this campus, you have more power, more chances to receive the benefit of the doubt, and more freedom to pursue events that will promote your opinions. It is very scary to think that the Columbia community is becoming one in which treating someone with decency and respect is contingent upon his or her political views or opinions. The reaction by students is created by the culture of the things we are taught in unbalanced classes from the Core, such as CC.

As the hate crimes in Ruggles and EC demonstrate, people’s hearts and attitudes require more than peaceful protest or even education to convince them that certain people with whom they disagree have a right to be at an Ivy League school, in this country, and this world.

So, what can be done and where are we headed? There is no simple answer. There is no magic solution that will soften all hardened hearts, resolve all land disputes, and eliminate contentious politics. But, Columbia is in a unique position to foster tolerance and cooperation through classes like CC.

The purpose of CC is, according to the Core’s Web site, to “introduce students to a range of issues concerning the kinds of communities—political, social, moral, and religious—that human beings construct for themselves and the values that inform and define such communities.” This means that CC can be a mechanism that challenges people to think beyond the perceptions with which they enter Columbia concerning the rights of individuals and the rights of individuals in a community or society. I question to what extent this class is living out its mission.

After all, how can you really become more accepting of homosexuals in your community when their perspective is not represented in a mandatory class concerning “a wide range of issues”? How can you be more accepting of black people in your community if you read only two books from the black perspective? How can you be more tolerant of Muslims in your community when you barely skimmed through the Quran, a book your teacher wasn’t even really prepared to teach, and when there were no Muslim students in your class to make the discussions more substantive and personal?

All too often, the Core reinforces dominant narratives without presenting dissenting views. Too often CC is about showing what we know through two-minute soliloquies regurgitating what the author wrote instead of about putting theories in Western civilization in dialogue with a reality that includes the perspectives of minorities. Too often our university fails to promote and encourage tolerance by failing to adequately represent differences through course material. Denouncing disrespect and intolerance starts in the classroom.

Reader letters

From: Tanweer Akram
To: normangf[at]
Subject: Letter to Columbia Spectator
Date: Wed, 29 Mar 2006 19:55:52 +0000


Dear Editor:

I am quite shocked to learn that Mr. Alan Dershowitz “in response
to” Wendy Francois’s decision to protest, grabbed her sign out of
her lap and then proceeded to “ripped it.” (Columbia Spectator,
March 28, 2006).

This is completely unworthy of a gentleman. Indeed, it resembles
the behavior of a thug, a party hack, or a occupation soldier. No
doubt Dershowitz is an assorted combination of all three, despite
his pretension to be a law professor.


Tanweer Akram, PhD

Graduated from Department of Economics, Graduate School of Arts and
Sciences, Columbia University in 2004