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Marjorie Cortez: Yes, he’s a kook, but let him speak anyway

SHARE Marjorie Cortez: Yes, he’s a kook, but let him speak anyway

When did we get so afraid of the First Amendment, people?

Why not let Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speak his piece at Columbia University? The event exposed him as the disconnected kook that he is.

It's painfully obvious that no one in Iran holds Ahmadinejad to task in the manner American journalists and academics have the past few days. Ahmadinejad may have to answer to clerics in Iran but few others. When asked about the Holocaust, his statements about blowing Israel off the map and other "interesting" public remarks, Ahmadinejad attempted to tap dance on quicksand. And Americans called him on it. Three cheers for freedom of speech!

We shouldn't be afraid of what Ahmadinejad might have to say. We should be celebrating the fact that we live in a country where we have the freedom to express ourselves. As Deseret Morning News editorial page editor Jay Evensen is fond of saying, "It's a marketplace of ideas."

It's interesting, though; some people wanted to muzzle Ahmadinejad outright. Others said he can say what he wants but shouldn't have such a large platform. Still others encouraged Ahmadinejad to tell us what he's thinking.

After watching his interview on "60 Minutes," it was painfully clear to me that Ahmadinejad is either incredibly arrogant or profoundly clueless. Perhaps both. Cultural and language differences might account for part of the disconnect, but it struck me that Ahmadinejad doesn't comprehend freedoms that enable common people to call into question — in public forums, no less — the statements or positions of leaders. Can you imagine a town hall meeting in Tehran?

One of the problems of interacting with Iran, I'd submit, is that we don't know a lot about Iran's internal political system. The U.S. State Department has not had a diplomatic presence in Iran since the end of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1981. The United States communicates with Iran via the Swiss, our protector power.

So an argument could be made that it makes sense to give Ahmadinejad an opportunity to speak and the rest of us an opportunity to listen, learn and respond.

Ahmadinejad aside, it was interesting how members of Congress last week responded to an advertisement by the liberal anti-war group MoveOn.org. The full-page ad, published last week in The New York Times, featured a headline that said, "General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the books for the White House."

The ad appeared as Gen. David Petraeus testified before Congress regarding his assessment of the Iraq war. The Senate voted 72-25 to condemn the advertisement.

No question, the ad could be construed as tasteless. It's certainly fair game for elected members of Congress to comment on it. There's a presidential election next year, so there should be a lot of discussion about the war. But to take a vote? Does that render the U.S. Senate the arbiter of free speech?

Excuse me, doesn't Congress have more pressing matters to attend to than voting on a full-page advertisement in The New York Times? If anything, the vote attracted more attention to the advertisement than MoveOn.org officials could have ever dreamed. If Congress has spare time on its hands, how about dealing with our illegal immigration issues, health care or salvaging the Social Security program.

But to the larger point, the First Amendment guarantees the liberties that ensure a marketplace of ideas can exist. Seemingly, our elected representatives should have a thick enough skin to allow groups or individuals to express their points of view without singling them out for condemnation in a Senate vote.

As Ahmadinejad's visit should have taught us, there's a huge difference between speech we tolerate and speech we embrace. But isn't it fabulous that we have the freedom to have the discussion?

Marjorie Cortez, who has finally learned to pronounce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name, is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com