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Ciolli: Fordham welcomes Ann Coulter, teaching a lesson about the First Amendment

Ann Coulter waves to the audience after speaking

Ann Coulter waves to the audience after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. Credit: AP, 2011

Update: This evening, Fordham University's College Republican Club canceled Ann Coulter's appearance.

In the midst of the Watergate furor in the early 1970's, a  Fordham University newspaper learned that President Richard Nixon was invited to speak at the Fordham Preparatory school, located on the University's Bronx campus.

One of Nixon's closest friends, Robert Abplanalp, had attended the prep, and with his wealth from inventing a better aerosol valve, saved the boys' high school from insolvency. Nixon was coming to an event to honor Abplanalp. The response was outrage. One of the newspaper's opinion writers wrote a column telling students to protest by laying their bodies down on the school's accessory road so the motorcade couldn't arrive.

As editor of "the paper," I splashed the column across the front page. Nixon never did come, but any satisfaction in that was short-lived when one of my Jesuit professors took me aside, and in the order's inimitable fashion, began a dialogue about what harm would have come from hearing Nixon speak? It was a question that was never forgotten, a lesson compounded by a Jesuit legal education, that is most likely at the root of my absolutist view of the First Amendment.

This all came back in a flash today, as I read the response by Fordham President Joseph McShane to the demand that he cancel the College Republican Club's invitation to Ann Coulter, the controversial political commentator. McShane, in refusing to block the visit, reaffirmed the ideal that speech is not to be feared. That doesn't mean that he thinks that Coulter's visit, funded in part by university money, is a good idea.

"To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement. There are many people who can speak to the conservative point of view with integrity and conviction, but Ms. Coulter is not among them. Her rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature," he wrote this afternoon in an email to university community.

"Still, to prohibit Ms. Coulter from speaking at Fordham would be to do greater violence to the academy, and to the Jesuit tradition of fearless and robust engagement. Preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another... The College Republicans have unwittingly provided Fordham with a test of its character: Do we abandon our ideals in the face of repugnant speech and seek to stifle Ms. Coulter’s (and the student organizers’) opinions, or do we use her appearance as an opportunity to prove that our ideas are better and our faith in the academy—and one another—stronger? We have chosen the latter course, confident in our community, and in the power of decency and reason to overcome hatred and prejudice."

And so, another Jesuit and another generation, my daughter's generation at Fordham, are having the same, essential dialogue. Ideas are not to be silenced but refuted.