The president of the University of Ottawa wanted to invite Ann Coulter, the abrasive right-wing American commentator, back to campus after her scheduled speech last March was shut down amid fierce protests. But Allan Rock’s advisers talked him out of it, warning that Coulter’s appearance would only turn into another media circus, newly disclosed documents show.
“An invitation to Ms. Coulter to return to the campus would demonstrate good faith on the part of the university and an unqualified commitment to freedom of expression,” Rock wrote in an email to senior university officials on March 24. That was the day after the speech was cancelled because of raucous anti-Coulter protests outside the auditorium. But several advisers, including Elly Alboim of the consulting firm Earnscliffe Strategy Group, strongly advised against the move. “My own personal view is that, on balance, I would not re-invite her,” Alboim said in a email to Rock. “Should she decide to take you up on the offer, her appearance will become a live news event that she will cynically use to personal advantage to extend her sense of grievance and victimization and amplify her profile. . . . It will be her win, not about your gesture.”
University records surrounding the Coulter controversy were obtained by The Canadian Press under Ontario’s freedom-of-information law. Coulter, 48, is well known in the United States not only for her social conservatism but for the deliberately provocative ways she expresses opinions. She has said she likes to stir the pot without pretending to be impartial or balanced. During her three-campus speaking tour in Canada last spring, for example, she told a Muslim student at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., that the woman should “take a camel” if she was barred from flying.
Dissension about Coulter’s pending appearance at the University of Ottawa was inflamed by an email sent by a senior university official to her on March 19. It warned that Canadian law places limits on freedom of expression, including restrictions imposed by defamation law and laws against promoting hatred toward an identifiable group. “I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind,” wrote Francois Houle, vice-president academic and provost.
Coulter made the email public, claiming the university was trying to gag her — triggering an avalanche of angry invective directed at the university for its allegedly heavy-handed effort to smother free speech. The negative reaction dominated the news media, and resulted in hundreds of often vicious emails to Houle himself.
In fact, the released documents show that it was Rock — not Houle — who asked that the email be sent. Rock even dictated some of the wording. “Ann Coulter is a mean-spirited, small-minded, foul-mouthed poltroon,” Rock wrote to Houle in a March 18 email. “She is ‘the loud mouth that bespeaks the vacant mind’.”
“She is an ill-informed and deeply offensive shill for a profoundly shallow and ignorant view of the world. She is a malignancy on the body politic. She is a disgrace to the broadcasting industry and a leading example of the dramatic decline in the quality of public discourse in recent times.” At the same time, he argued, “we should not take any steps to interfere with her plans to speak next week on our campus.”
Instead, Rock advised Houle he should write to Coulter informing her of the different rules surrounding free speech in Canada compared with those in the United States. “You, Francois, as Provost, should write immediately to Coulter informing her of our domestic laws. . . You should urge her to respect that Canadian tradition as she enjoys the privilege of her visit.” After seeing a copy of the final email to Coulter, Rock praised Houle: “Quel excellent message! Merci et felicitations. I am sure she has never been dressed down so elegantly in her life!”
The Houle-Rock email was itself prompted by a March 17 letter to Rock from Seamus Wolfe, president of the university’s student federation, who alerted the president to Coulter’s pending appearance the following week. Wolfe cited Coulter’s past comments attacking aspects of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, arguing she had a clear history of promoting hatred and should not be allowed to speak publicly on campus. “I would request that you notify Ms. Coulter that she is not welcome on our campus, and that her event will not occur on uOttawa property,” Wolfe wrote.
The released material shows the university initially considered whether there was any valid reason to cancel the event, and quickly determined there was none. The event, for example, was properly sponsored by a recognized student organization. Rock also consulted with the president of the University of Toronto, David Naylor, who’d had some experience with similarly controversial campus speakers — and who had nonetheless allowed events there to proceed.
When Coulter’s March 23 evening appearance was cancelled, both sides in the dispute blamed the other. In the University of Ottawa’s only public statement on the controversy, officials indicated the organizers had made the decision to shut down the event. “Last night, the organizers themselves decided at 7:50 p.m. to cancel the event and so informed the University’s Protection Services staff on site,” said a news release.
In fact, an internal security report shows that the decision to cancel was made by consensus at a group meeting that included two of the event organizers, Coulter’s bodyguard Floyd Resnick, two Ottawa city police officers along with a security officer from the university. “All parties involved agreed that the event could not be continued,” says the report. “Public safety was the overall deciding factor for the cancellation.”
The university had initially planned to place only two university security officers at the event, but called in more — and asked for Ottawa city police help — as it became clear the event was attracting large numbers of protesters, with some estimates of more than 1,000. In the end, many of the mostly student protesters were angered when they found the Coulter event was reserved for ticket holders only. Someone then set off a fire alarm, which rang for 15 minutes, yet no one in the assembly vacated the premises.
Organizers and security officials together agreed the situation was too dangerous to continue, according to the University of Ottawa security report. Rock was notably absent during the furor surrounding the Coulter affair, making no public statements and turning down media interviews. Emails released under freedom of information show that he was taking the advice of Andree Dumulon, the university’s communications director. “I think that you should stay under the radar for the next weeks especially attending events where there is media,” she wrote to Rock on March 25.
“I am going to follow Andree’s advice,” Rock said to his staff.
Dumulon said in an interview Tuesday that to her knowledge, Coulter has not taken any legal action against the university, nor made a human-rights complaint. “If she wanted to come back, she’d be welcome like any other speaker on campus,” Dumulon added. Asked about Rock’s decisions during the controversy, Dumulon cited a statement he made April 12 to members of the university senate.
Rock, a former Liberal justice minister, told the senate he used “intemperate language” with colleagues to describe Coulter, about whom he said he knew little before checking the Internet. At the same meeting, Rock acknowledged the Houle letter could be seen as having a chilling effect on free speech — and that there were better ways to handle the situation in future.
Coulter could not be reached immediately for comment.
The Canadian Press