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Credit: Crystal Sun

When my family tells people we’ll be traveling to Tehran in the near future to visit family, many often express concern for our safety. “But … isn’t there no free speech in Iran?” they may ask. My dad has developed the perfect response. With a frown and a shake of his head, he’ll emphatically insist, “No, no there is freedom of speech in Iran! But — ” and here, a pause, and a smile begins to form before he goes on, slowly, “there’s not always freedom after speech.” 

A tried and true crowd-pleaser — and tame political critique — all rolled into one.

I’ve lived in the suburbs of Boston my whole life, yet near-annual visits to Iran have kept alive my connection with my family and cultural heritage. And as much as Iran’s culture or people — let alone the mouthwatering foods, stunning art and literature, and regal rugs and palaces — are points of pride I wish all westerners were familiar with, there’s a lot I find wrong with modern-day Iran. 


There’s a reason many Iranian-Americans self-identify as Persian: “Persian” is to “rug,” “cat,” or “prince,” what “Iran” is to “nuclear threat.” 

Liberties like free speech are among the many reasons why my parents ultimately left Iran to build a family in the United States. Perhaps that’s part of why I value it so highly. But of course, it’s easy to stand for a principle like the right to free speech when the speech in question poses no threat to oneself.

“It’s easy to stand for a principle like the right to free speech when the speech in question poses no threat to oneself.”

Back at my high school, I signed off on inviting a speaker who was highly critical of Iran. The speaker was knowledgeable, eloquent, and taught me a lot about Middle Eastern affairs viewed from a different vantage point than my own.

Yet, sitting through the speech was undeniably difficult. I felt compelled to dismiss much of the speech as false, based on my desire that it would prove to be so. Part of me hoped people wouldn’t hear it and have it reinforce an already negative image of the country my extended family calls home. Talking with my parents and digging into the Internet revealed, however, that I had encountered far fewer lies than I had hoped. 

In my last column, I defended Penn Law professor Amy Wax’s freedom to speak without facing professional repercussions, even when her speech included controversial observations regarding the relative performance of her black Penn Law students. 

If the success of my own racial group were being called into question, I imagine it would be far more difficult for me to author that same piece. Abstract ideology is one thing, but the feeling of having innate aspects of your identity criticized is another. 

As conservative icon Ben Shapiro is fond of stating in his characteristically nasal, obnoxiously snarky, yet undeniably witty tone, “These are facts, and facts don’t care about your feelings.” For all of our political differences, on this, I agree wholeheartedly with Shapiro — although to do so is to concede a great deal of the comfort that comes with denying facts that are personally upsetting.

Only by confronting what the facts were — or weren’t — was I able to then dig more into why they were that way. I came out on the other side a little less naive and a lot more knowledgeable about both sides of the discussion. This allowed me to challenge some of the arguments I’d heard using reasons and evidence of my own. I realized my pride in my family’s cultural roots and my willingness to share details about my summer visits did not burden me with the role of spokesperson or defendant of an entire nation. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that standing up for the speech you don’t like is crucial — even if you’re forced to grit your teeth through it.

MATEEN TABATABAEI is a College freshman from Newton, Mass. His email address is