Monday, March 14, 2011

A decision that fails Columbia’s students and its mandate



Opinion | Mar. 12 3:00 pm EST GUEST OP-ED


A decision that fails Columbia's students and its mandate


By Bruce Friedrich, Vice President for Policy at PETA, was prevented by University officials from appearing at an on-campus event Thursday. He provided the following editorial to Spectator.


I'm frequently invited to college campuses to debate the ethics of using animals for food. Over the past 18 months, I've engaged in this discussion with student debaters from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and more than 30 other universities. Last Thursday, I was supposed to engage Columbia University debaters on the topic, but five hours before the event was supposed to commence, I found myself disinvited by the University.


The event was already the most contested of any of the more than 100 talks I've given on college campuses in my 15 years at PETA: No campus has ever raised security concerns or insisted on restricting attendees, as Columbia did two days before the event was scheduled to take place. And no campus has ever canceled one of my events, as Columbia did five hours before the event was to begin. For the record, there has never been a security concern at any talk I've ever given. 

So what was Columbia's explanation? "The University Rules of Conduct apply to all students, faculty, staff and guests on our campus. When individuals who are not members of the University community violate those rules, one of the consequences is loss of the privilege of campus access."


It seems the school is still smarting over the fact that in May of 2004—when most of the class of 2011 was just starting high school—I walked up to the microphone during Columbia's commencement ceremonies, encouraged attendees to speak out against Columbia's hideously cruel animal experiments, and asked them to visit PETA's website. Although I'm sure Emily Post wouldn't have approved of my action, I did have a ticket, I didn't trespass, and I left when asked to do so. And my lack of decorum is nothing compared to the reason for it: A PETA investigation had uncovered hideous abuse of primates in Columbia laboratories, and the University was stonewalling our calls for action.


How hideous? Experimenters were inducing strokes in baboons by removing their eyeballs so that they could clamp a critical blood vessel supplying blood to their brains, they were pumping nicotine and morphine into pregnant baboons who were tethered to their cages and forced to wear backpacks, and they were implanting metal pipes into monkey's skulls in order to simulate the effects of stress on women's menstrual cycles.


Anyway, the question that Columbia should have spent more time on is this: Which is more important, free speech or a 7-year-old grudge? The school might also have more thoroughly considered the fact that the debate team worked extremely hard on this event and expected to pack the 400-seat hall. The school's decision adversely impacted its own students and the campus community, sending the message that a violation of school rules is more important than critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas.


Remember: This is a school that defended its decision to invite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus. Columbia President Lee Bollinger argued that providing Columbia as a forum for Ahmadinejad "is the right thing to do" because "it is required by the existing norms of free speech, of Columbia University, and of academic institutions."


So maybe they think the issue of cruelty to animals is one lacking in gravitas. If so, they're wrong: Animal rights is a matter of both interest and importance to students at Columbia and other universities. It is a scientific fact that other animals feel pain just as humans do, that they have the same five physiological senses that we do, and that they are made of flesh, blood and bone—just as we are. The practical implications of this science are worthy of discussion, not thoughtless censorship.


We all make mistakes—I hope that Columbia will realize that barring me from campus is a violation of the principles of free speech and is not worthy of any institution of higher learning, and certainly not one as prestigious as Columbia. 

I therefore call on Columbia University to reconsider its backward decision.

Copyright 2011 Spectator Publishing Company

Bruce G. Friedrich

Vice President, Policy


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