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When protesters stormed a Columbia University stage on Wednesday evening, shutting down a speech by the head of a fiercely anti-immigration group, they not only stopped the program, but also hurtled the university back into the debate over free speech on campus.
The fracas, which came just weeks after the president of Iran was invited to speak at Columbia and then told not to come, was captured live by Columbia’s student-run television station, CTV, as well as by two commercial stations. It was shown repeatedly on television in New York yesterday and was widely available on the Internet.
Yesterday Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg chastised Columbia for the disruption. “I think it’s an outrage that somebody that was invited to speak didn’t get a chance to speak,” he said in response to a question on his weekly radio program.
“Bollinger’s just got to get his hands around this,” Mr. Bloomberg added, referring to Columbia’s president, Lee C. Bollinger. “There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored,” he said, using Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as an example.
This time the speaker, invited by a campus Republican group, was Jim Gilchrist, the head of the Minuteman Project, which assembled hundreds of volunteers last year, some armed, to patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for illegal immigrants.
Mr. Bollinger, a legal scholar whose specialty is free speech and the First Amendment, quickly condemned this week’s disruption.
“Students and faculty have rights to invite speakers to the campus,” he said yesterday in an interview. “Others have rights to hear them. Those who wish to protest have rights to do so. No one, however, shall have the right or the power to use the cover of protest to silence speakers.”
He added, “There is a vast difference between reasonable protest that allows a speaker to continue, and protest that makes it impossible for speech to continue.”
Monique Dols, a senior in history at Columbia’s School of General Studies, said she had mounted the stage in protest and unfurled a banner but that at such events in the past the speakers had kept going.
“We have always been escorted off the stage and the event continues,” she said, adding that this time the protesters were attacked.
“We were punched and kicked,” she said. “Unfortunately, the story being circulated is that we initiated the violence.”
On campus yesterday, many people condemned the silencing of Mr. Gilchrist.
“I think it was really wrong not to let him speak,” said Anusha Sriram, 18, a Columbia freshman studying political science and human rights, who moved to the United States from Mumbai five years ago. “He wasn’t being violent. He was giving his view peacefully.”
She said she was upset that by keeping Mr. Gilchrist from speaking, the protesters had unwittingly turned the tables of the discussion against themselves.
“That just undermined the entire protest,” she said. “Now everyone looks at the protest in a bad light instead of him in a bad light.”
She added, “They should invite him back and maybe set up a debate.”
The program was sponsored by the Columbia University College Republicans, a five-year-old group that says on its Web site that it has 600 members. Its president, Chris Kulawik, a junior, is described on the site as a “staunch conservative” who “endeavors to attain the cherished title of ‘Most Despised Person on Campus.’ ”
He said he was “very much surprised” by Wednesday night’s events.
“We always understood that this is a very left-wing campus,” he said. “But to see your peers resort to physical violence because they disagree with you is very frightening.”
He said he had been working to ensure there is more campus security next week when his group has three more potentially controversial speakers, including Walid Shoebat, a former P.L.O. member, and Hilmar von Campe, an author who fought for Germany during World War II.
When asked how he chooses speakers, and whether he tries to stir up controversy, he said he chooses people that his group’s members request.
(Posted on October 9, 2006)