Op-Ed: Loudly Talking Shit About Columbia to Tour Groups is my First Amendment Right

By Lee Bollinger

I served as Columbia’s president for more than twenty years, even extending my tenure to keep the school stable during a global pandemic. For even longer, I worked to protect the first amendment both in the academy and in the highest courts in the land. After decades of service to the university, there is one claim I seek to pass on to our new administration—a call to action to defend our sworn freedoms as Americans on Columbia’s campus:

Talking shit about this hellhole to visiting high schoolers and their parents is my sovereign right under the First Amendment.

Looking at the current state of our “esteemed” university, I see our right to free speech under attack (just as it has always been), but now in even more insidious ways; for example, one need only look at how our campus guides treat open discourse with blatant hostility, often threatening even the most benign comments with ejection from the tour, to see our flaws. 

I just say a few things about the students here “being the most obnoxious people I’ve had the disprivilege of meeting” and “not knowing shit about how to run a global institution” and maybe a little bit of an impassioned rant against some of the faculty before I’m kicked out of the group! To what end will my freedom of speech be suppressed? How far will some random sophomore with a microphone go in telling me to “go home” and “get a new job”?

Sometimes I’ll sign up for tours to give those applicants a piece of my mind: usually a few jokes about the admissions scandal back in 2022 (it’s healthy to own up to your mistakes), sometimes a comment on the godawful performance of our team sports (can’t believe I traded Michigan for this shit), or a little joke about how I can’t wait to imagine most of them crying when they get hit with the rejection letter next year. 

They usually let me stick around for a while, but then they notice I don’t have a kid with me on the tour. Then, all of a sudden, I can’t stay with the group. Whenever I try citing United States v. Cruikshank to argue my right to assembly, the guide suddenly starts threatening to call campus security to kick me out. 

Once upon a time, I dreamt of looking back on my legacy at Columbia with pride, yet instead, I see the conundrum that thousands of leaders before me bore witness to as their life’s work was undone before them. I devoted my tenure as president to the protection of free speech, but, as Columbia has now made clear, such speech no longer has a home on this campus. As long as I cannot tell a tour guide that they’re wasting time doing this gig instead of a pre-law internship, Columbia’s free speech will continue its disheartening decline.