Columbia and the First Amendment:

The New York Sun reports that New York city and state government officials are threatening to retaliate against Columbia — for instance, by cutting off various government subsidies for Columbia all its students — for its inviting Ahmadinejad to speak:

[T]he speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, said lawmakers, outraged over Columbia’s insistence on allowing the Iranian president to speak at its World Leaders Forum, would consider reducing capital aid and other financial assistance to the school….

“There are issues that Columbia may have before us that obviously this cavalier attitude would be something that people would recall,” Mr. Silver said. “Obviously, there’s some degree of capital support that has been provided to Columbia in the past. These are things people might take a different view of … knowing that this is that kind of an institution.”

Mr. Silver faulted Columbia for “attempting to legitimize this individual,” saying, “We have an obligation because of the U.N. to allow him to come to this country. It doesn’t mean we have to make him welcome. We don’t have to give him a forum.” …

“Bollinger made a big mistake, and there should be consequences for him for making that decision,” the chairman of the New York City Council’s Finance Committee, David Weprin, said in an interview. “We should look at everything involving Columbia, whether it be capital projects, city and state, or other related things that we do in the city for them,” he said….

Albany awards Columbia millions of dollars a year in student financial aid and also provides funding for smaller-scale capital projects. Last year, Albany awarded the school $10 million for nanotechnology center and $12 million for a cancer center in Washington Heights.

Columbia uses the state Dormitory Authority to borrow money at low interest rates. Mr. Silver could use his influence over the authority to weed out Columbia bonding projects before they are submitted for approval.

The school is also seeking approval from city lawmakers for its plan to expand into a 17-acre swath of land in West Harlem. Albany also has the power to use eminent domain to facilitate Columbia’s expansion….

Naturally, the government is not obligated to provide most subsidies to Columbia. It can also insist that some subsidies not be used for speech of which the government disapproves: For instance, it can require that certain subsidies be used for speech about prenatal care but not for speech about abortion.

But the government may not say, “We’ll give you this subsidy, but only if you promise not to say X, Y, or Z using your own money.” That’s what the Court held in FCC v. League of Women Voters, when it held that Congress can’t say to public broadcasters, “We’ll give you money, but only if you promise not to editorialize even using your own money.” This is surely at least equally true if the extracted promise were viewpoint-based, for instance that the broadcaster (or, here, the university) wouldn’t carry speech by enemies of America, or Holocaust deniers, or anti-Semites.

Here, the government isn’t saying, “We’ll give you this subsidy, but only if you don’t invite anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers.” Rather, it seems to be threatening to say, “We won’t give you future subsidies because you invited anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers.” But the latter ought to be at least as constitutionally troublesome as the former (perhaps even more so because it requires subsidy recipients to guess as to what speech will cause them to lose their subsidies).

Now if the government were to say, “Here’s a subsidy, which we want you to use for praise of racial and religious tolerance,” then it could insist that this subsidy isn’t used for other speech. If Columbia then wanted to invite Ahmadinejad to speak, it would have to make sure that all his funding came from sources other than this subsidy. But the government can’t use its funding as a means to constrain all of Columbia’s speech, without regard to whether that speech took advantage of that government funding. And that sounds like what the New York officials are trying to do.

And such a result strikes me as quite right. Federal, state, and local governments take about 25-30% of the GNP and then redistribute them. Nearly everyone, including speakers, receives a huge amount of government subsidies. If the government could deny subsidies to those who expressed views the government dislikes (not just using government money, but also using entirely private money) then it could restrict what university officials, university professors, corporate officials and employees, and others say on a wide range of topics. Imagine the deterrent effect if a legislature stripped universities of benefits whenever university officials, or even professors or guests whom the universities had invited, suggested that there might be cognitive differences between men and women, that race-based affirmative action is a bad idea, that certain religions were dangerous, that the threat of global warming is overstated, or whatever else.

So my bottom line: Criticize or praise Columbia’s invitation of Ahmadinejad as you will. But don’t threaten government retaliation for Columbia’s speech, or the speech of people whom Columbia has invited.