On Campus

Ann Coulter: Canadian free speech hero

Canadian media to UOttawa--you suck

The reviews of Ann Coulter’s aborted talk at the University of Ottawa are in, and the message from Canada’s editorial and op/ed writers is, “Dear University of Ottawa, you suck.”

At the Globe and Mail, an editorial argued that “the forces of intimidation won out over public inquiry” and, as such, “It was a defeat of the university’s basic mission to educate and enlighten.” In a similar vein, the National Post editorialists remember the good old days, when “Universities used to fight vigorously for the free expression of ideas, all sorts of ideas, even discomforting and controversial ones.” When Coulter’s talk was canceled, “it was a triumph for thuggery over scholarship.” An Ottawa Citizen editorial, also invoking the word “thuggery,” goes even further and says the incident is just the latest example of “totalitarianism on Canadian campuses.” You can find similar arguments from editorial boards right across the country, from the Montreal Gazette,  to the Calgary Herald, to the Vancouver Province. Curiously, the Toronto Star editorial board has so far ignored the issue.

I was beginning to worry at the fact that Ezra Levant’s blog has been silent on the cancellation of Coulter’s speech. Thankfully, he popped up in the Citizen this morning. Focusing his barbs on U of O provost Francois Houle, Levant said Houle’s “bizarre” email to Coulter, warning her she could be subject to criminal charges, was a “starter pistol for radical students.” For Levant, “it was the assessment of police, campus security and Coulter’s own bodyguard that there was too much physical danger to Coulter and the audience to proceed.” However, he stops short of calling the protesters rioters, and, instead uses the awkward phrase “student disrupters.” Levant also accused the U of O of indulging “in some of [the] most offensive conduct in the country on their campus.” Citing Israel Apartheid Week, Levant says “Never has Houle seen fit to issue a warning to his campus’s steady stream of Jew-baiters to govern their tongues.”

Paul Saurette, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Ottawa, sees the rancour over Coulter as an opportunity for a teachable moment. With a healthy dose of John Stuart Mill (an assuredly original source on free speech . . .), Saurette submits Globe readers to a yawning missive on the theoretical implications of free expression in Canada. Here’s a sample: “But we also need to remember that, even in theory, the principle of free speech is not a pure metaphysical law that says we are literally free to say anything we like.” Saurette is hopeful that the Coulter incident will “inspire” Canadians to spare “a few moments to think about the complex nature of free speech and its implications.” I get it, free speech is complicated. . . .

Lawrence Martin offers a somewhat different take. After making the obligatory sops to free expression, he, rightfully I would say, points to several greater threats to liberty that have failed to spark the level of outrage seen in the Coulter case. Stephen Harper has engaged in an “unprecedented” clamping down of freedom since he took office. From trying to censor “coverage of dead bodies returning from Afghanistan,” to putting “out a secret handbook instructing members how to muzzle parliamentary committees,”  to thumbing a nose “at high court rulings on Omar Khadr,” the government has turned Ottawa into “Muzzletown.”

Maclean’s On Campus blogger Jeff Rybak has also argued that there are much greater things to worry about than the Coulter saga. After naming several news stories much more worthy of our attention, Rybak laments, “all I can bloody well hear about is this screwball American provocateur who has just about nothing relevant to say to Canadians and nothing informed to say to anyone. Someone please tell me why I’m supposed to care?”

And what has been the net result of the University of Ottawa protests, and Houle’s preemptive letter? The Posts Kevin Libin sums it up nicely: “Burnishing the image of Ann Coulter as a teller of dangerous truths may not have been quite the goal of Mr. Houle and the U of O mob, but they have unquestionably done it. In the U.S. media, their school, and this country, have become in the last 48 hours an object of scorn and ridicule, on all sides of the political spectrum, while Ms. Coulter has been cast a free-speech hero. No wonder she seems so cheerful.”

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