Columbia President Defends Invitation to Ahmadinejad to Speak at School

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger defended the university's decision to invite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the campus today on "Good Morning America," citing free speech and academic freedom.

"What is at stake is the ability to learn about the world and know about people, even dictators, even people who are highly repressive and highly dangerous, as Dr. Ahmadinejad," Bollinger said.

"It's extremely important to know who the leaders are of countries who are your adversaries, to watch them, to see how they think, to see how they reason or don't reason. To see whether they're fanatical or whether they are sly. These are issues that are right at the core of the world today."

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Ahmadinejad arrived Sunday night in New York City to a chilly reception.

Hours earlier, protesters gathered at Columbia University in upper Manhattan, where Ahmadinejad is scheduled to speak today.

Protesters say the Ivy League university should not be hosting what they call a dangerous despot whose country is allegedly arming insurgents in Iraq and secretly building nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad has also said in the past that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and that the Holocaust is a "myth."

Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman representing parts of Brooklyn, likened the Iranian president to Hitler.

"There is no excuse to have a madman, this little Hitler, running around all over the world killing our soldiers!" Hikind said.

Critics say that someone like Ahmadinejad should not be given a platform to spew his hate-filled rhetoric.

"This university is making a mockery of civilized discourse by allowing this madman to participate," said New York City Councilman James Gennaro.

Wanted to Visit Ground Zero

The speech at Columbia is just one of the controversies surrounding this trip.

Ahmadinejad was also refused a request to lay a wreath at ground zero, the site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

In an interview broadcast on "60 Minutes" last night Ahmadinejad said he was amazed by the reaction.

"Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects, and also to perhaps air your views about the root cause of such incidences," Ahmadinejad said. "I think that when I do that I will be doing, as I said earlier, my respects to the American nation."

Ahmadinejad has a very restrictive visa, which lasts 29 days and only allows him to move within a 25-mile radius of the Columbia University area. Security will be high around him today, with the New York Police Department and Secret Service on hand to protect him from all the threats he's been receiving.

The dean who extended the invitation to Ahmadinejad has also said he would have invited, in theory, Adolf Hitler, but only before World War II and before the Holocaust.

"Free speech doesn't endorse anyone, it doesn't honor the dishonorable," Bollinger said.

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