It isn’t just the student union that is having a fit over Ann Coulter’s planned visit to the University of Ottawa. Francois Houle, vice-president academic and provost at the U of O, has sent Coulter an email warning her to watch her mouth, lest she find herself behind bars.
Coulter has posted the email online, which reads:
I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.
You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.
There is little question that Coulter has written many things considered provocative, rude and inflammatory. For a few examples see here and here. But has she ever said anything criminal? Something so offensive that it would actually attract the attention of the police? Our criminal hate-speech provisions no doubt require an arbitrary line be drawn between what is acceptable and what is not. But the way the law has evolved is that it has become reserved for the most egregious and vile offences, like this case.
When Section 319 of the criminal code, the hate speech provisions, was subject to a Charter challenge and reviewed by the Supreme Court some two decades ago, it survived only because the judges reasoned that, as written, it should not have an overly broad interpretation, and that only the most extreme cases should be subject to prosecution. Such cases typically include a sustained effort by the accused to willfully promote hatred over a period of time, and, in such a way that there would be no redeemable political speech. Hate speech has to be near fully void of relevant comment on issues of public interest. In fact this is written right into the criminal code and anyone charged with promoting hatred has recourse to several defences. The defences include truth, commenting on religious topics, making comments that stem from religious beliefs, and making comments that are on a topic of public interest.
Even if Coulter repeated every inflammatory thing she ever wrote during her visit in Canada, she likely still wouldn’t be charged. And, if she was, she would have several legal defences at her disposal.
Provost Houle wants Coulter to educate herself on our hate speech laws, I would suggest he take his own advice.
Originally published on March 22nd, 2010 at Maclean’s On Campus