Protests Greet Ahmadinejad Speech in New York

As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at New York's Columbia University in New York City, thousands of students crowded the center of campus to listen to the event. It capped a day of protests around the campus over whether or not the Iranian president should have been allowed to speak.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

NPR's Robert Smith was outside at Columbia University during President Ahmadinejad's speech along with thousands of students and protesters. It was a day of protest on and off campus over whether or not the Iranian president should have been allowed to speak.

ROBERT SMITH: The giant iron gates to the Columbia campus - normally wide open - were barred and guarded by police.

Unidentified Man #1: University ID for access today. Let's see the IDs. Thank you.

SMITH: In order to get to class, students had to elbow their way through a crowd of protestors from local Jewish organizations.

Unidentified Man #2: Death to Ahmadinejad, the Hitler of Iran.

SMITH: And even those who didn't come to demonstrate got drawn into the debate. Three students, Billy Freelanders(ph) and Sarah Taylor(ph) and Allan Lange(ph), yelled for 10 minutes about who has done more damage in the world: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or George Bush.

Mr. BILLY FREELANDERS (Student, Columbia University): They are exploiting people…

Ms. SARAH TAYLOR (Student, Columbia University): Who is filling the Iranian prison to such…

Mr. ALLAN LANGE (Student, Columbia University): …being hanged, hung for homosexuality.

SMITH: For days now, the campus has been polarized over the invitation to Ahmadinejad. Any sort of civil discourse on the issue got drown out by outside groups and newspapers, calling the Iranian president a maniac, a madman and evil. Surprisingly, though, as the time for the speech approached, students both supporting and opposing Ahmadinejad's appearance came together. They took turns at a microphone, giving impassioned speeches on both sides of the issue.

Jacob Kriegel(ph) told the crowd that maybe their opposition didn't stop the speech, but it could inspire students in Iran to speak out.

Mr. JACOB KRIEGEL (Student, Columbia University): We need to shift the spotlight away from him, from Ahmadinejad, and onto what we as students are doing here now - standing up against what he stands for.

SMITH: Thousands of students, who didn't have tickets to see the event, gathered on the lawn to watch a giant TV. Every time the university's president, Lee Bollinger, asked a tough question, the crowd went nuts.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BOLLINGER: Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator. And so I ask you…

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. BOLLINGER: And so I ask you, why have women, members of the Baha'i faith homosexuals, and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?

SMITH: Standing apart from the crowd, though, one student had an exasperated expression on his face.

Ramin Mehdizadeh is from Iran and plans to go back there after he gets his architecture degree. He says all this debate is giving people the wrong impression of his country.

Mr. RAMIN MEHDIZADEH (Student, Columbia University): You know, these kinds of pictures, things that Iran is a horrible country to live, you know, you don't have any right, you have no freedom - they're not true.

SMITH: Mehdizadeh personally doesn't support the Iranian president, but he says the controversy only strengthens Ahmadinejad.

Mr. MEHDIZADEH: This is our duty to change our government, not U.S.

SMITH: Mehdizadeh says, a few years ago when he got to Columbia, some of his fellow students didn't know the difference between Iraq and Iran. At least they now know the name of the president.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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