What would you do if you found yourself face-to-face with injustice?
An Iranian student named Mahmoud Vahidnia recently gave a new meaning to the phrase “speaking truth to power”. During a question-and-answer forum at his school, Sharif Technical University, Vahidnia was given the opportunity to ask a question of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
That courageous student used the opportunity to criticize the most powerful man in his country to his face—a country that recently sentenced some individuals involved in the post-election protests to death, and is well known for jailing and torturing political opponents and critics (including students).
The session began with a speech in which Khamenei told the students the “biggest crime” was to question the results of the June 12 presidential election that returned hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Khamenei himself declared Ahmadinejad the victor despite opposition claims of widespread fraud.
After the speech, Vahidnia raised his hand, then for 20 minutes he criticized the Iranian leader over the fierce crackdown on postelection protests, in which the opposition says 69 people were killed and thousands were arrested.
In brief excerpts broadcast on state TV, the thin, bespectacled Vahidnia was shown standing behind a podium, gesturing at times for emphasis.
“I don’t know why in this country it’s not allowed to make any kind of criticism of you,” said the student, wearing a long-sleeved blue polo shirt and appearing calm.
“In the past three to five years that I have been reading newspapers, I have seen no criticism of you, not even by the Assembly of Experts, whose duty is to criticize and supervise the performance of the leader,” he said, referring to the clerical body that chooses the country’s supreme leader.
This young student has become an unlikely hero overnight in Iran. Khamenei has the power to do virtually anything he likes to Vahidnia in retribution for his criticism, but faced with the rare opportunity to speak directly to this man, Vahidnia chose to use it to speak out for liberty, despite the potentially catastrophic costs. What bravery.
We are extraordinarily blessed to live in a country where we do not have to fear imprisonment for questioning our leaders. But we are not immune to injustice, and too often, we find that many students are afraid to stand up to abuses of power. Unfortunately, most universities will not change their ways when someone simply asks nicely. Instead, it often takes a lawsuit — in some cases, it takes multiple lawsuits — to get public universities to comply with the Constitution. And even when there is no censorship by the government, there are many students who self-censor out of fear, and take their rights for granted. (David French previously wrote about this problem here).
Without students brave enough to stand up for their constitutional rights, we are powerless to do anything to defend against the increasing curtailment of freedom on many university campuses. And without students brave enough to exercise their constitutional rights, the First Amendment will become meaningless on campus.
Vahidnia stood before the supreme leader and spoke up for freedom, despite the fact that it could cost him his life. In this country, we may not fear death as a punishment for standing up to the authorities—but we stand to lose that freedom if it is not jealously guarded.