Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University created a furor in New York City. Victoria Cavaliere reports from VOA's New York Bureau protests reverberated all the way to U.S. Congress in Washington.

Thousands of demonstrators, observers and activists lined the heavily-guarded streets around Columbia University where Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke Monday.

Columbia's decision to host the Iranian leader at its World Leader's Forum met with sharp criticism from U.S. politicians, New York City officials and Jewish groups.

In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky criticized Columbia for inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad.

"Think of the irony," said Mitch McConnell. "Columbia University, home of the core curriculum that prizes an in-depth undestanding of Western civilization and the free exchange of ideas, is brining to its campus a state sponsor of terror."

Last year, Columbia canceled an invitation for Mr. Ahmadinejad to speak after an outcry from Jewish groups. Mr. Ahmadinejad has said he supports the destruction of Israel and has described the Holocaust as a myth.

Columbia's president Lee Bollinger defended the prestigious university's decision to go forward with the speech this year, saying it was a testament to the freedom of speech guaranteed under the U.S. Constituion.

Outside the arena, flocks of protesters said the decision was an insult. Daniel Klein, one of the main organizers of the rally, said demonstrators opposed the platform Mr. Ahmadinejad was given at Columbia.

"The fact that he's being brought here, to an Ivy League [one of the best in the country] institution no less," he said, "is really a smack in the face to students on the campus, to the American students that are here that basically say, 'we don't want his despicable views on our campus.'"

Other protesters, like Russel Whitaker, said he thought Mr. Ahmadinejad's hardline views were not in keeping with the theme of the World Leaders' Forum, which examines global challenges and discourse.

"I think it was rather naïve, and I think that it was a mistake, a well intentioned mistake," said Russel Whitaker. "There are people with whom you can have dialogue, but I don't think he's one of those."

But the contentious public debate was two-sided. Many New Yorkers and students said they turned out because they were curious about what the controversial Iranian leader would say. Columbia students, including Mikhail Klassen, also said they support his right to speak.

"The fact that a venue like this exists, and that Columbia's hosting an event like this, is significant because an event like this couldn't exist in Iran," he said. "In terms of the diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States, right now are not great, I think it's good to have him here, to hear him speak, and our president can confront him on some of the controversial things he says."

Another observer Margaret North, said she showed up out of curiosity.

"I think he should be given freedom of expression," she said. "No one is going to agree on everything. We should hear his opinion."

Protests were also held at the United Nations headquarters and more protests are expected Tuesday when Mr. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the General Assembly.