The Coulter Affair

Three important facts to note:

  1. I’m a professor at the University of Ottawa
  2. Politically, I’m liberal on philosophical points, particularly relating to foreign policy, and conservative on fiscal matters. But I’m probably best described as Left of centre, if you really need me to pick a side.
  3. I think Ann Coulter is delusional, hypocritical, possibly narcissistic, dangerously disingenuous, and a seething cauldron of unexamined –nay, proud!– hate.

And if you strongly disagree with point #3, you will probably cite points #1 and #2 in your inevitable actions to refute what I’m going to say for the rest of this post. I do tire of these games, and have no intention of entering into any kind of debate with anyone over anything to do with Miss Coulter.

As you probably already know, Coulter is on a pan-Canada tour. Why? Who knows. Maybe Americans –flush with purpose and a renewed skepticism of knee-jerk hate after a Democratic and supposedly liberal President gave them all health care– are no longer in the mood for Coulter’s particular brand of idiocy. Maybe she feels that Canada, North America’s only nation now with a retrograde conservative leadership, presents better hunting grounds for a niche in which to sell Coulter’s smear-jobs-of-the-week that she packages as books.

I don’t care why she’s coming. Lots of people come here. I don’t have a problem with it, especially since I’m presently in Mexico and thus far away from her.

The problem, of course, is that Coulter is known for her so-called “hate speech”. In the past, she has publicly called for the invasion of Muslim countries, the murdering of their heads of state and the forced conversion to Christianity of Muslim civilians. In a rehearsed public speech, she called John Edwards a “faggot”. These are two examples off the top of my head. To cite more would require me to go back and read her columns again, and I really don’t want to put my ageing and addled brain through such torture.

Do her words qualify as hate speech? Sure, why not? I’m on record, though, of being opposed to Canada’s hate speech laws and hate crime laws. I think that a crime is not made more criminal simply by being hateful; and I think that hateful speech should not be legally punished until a link can be shown between such speech and an actual criminal act. Otherwise, people should be able to say whatever (non-libelous things) they want to say.

But that’s just me.

So where are we? Ann Coulter, known for her hateful speech, is coming to Canada. Of more immediate concern to this blog post, though, is that Ann Coulter was coming to the University of Ottawa…. my generous and gracious employer whom I’d never dream of disparaging 🙂

Now, I don’t know why the following happened. I have some theories. Here’s one. The university knows its students, knows that they are mostly a Left-leaning activist lot who would get quite riled up by Coulter’s (deliberately) provocative statements. Statements that may dance on the border of hate crime, or maybe even cross over into that realm, would be carefully parsed and legal action would be demanded of the university by these passionate students. So perhaps to save itself such trouble, perhaps to avoid more administrative burden in an institution already known for its overwhelming mass of bureaucracy, the university issued the following letter to Ann Coulter:

“Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus and hope that they will contribute positively to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a great university campus. We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, as well as on our campus, and view it as a fundamental freedom, as recognized by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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 a strong tradition in Canada, including at this university, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions and urge you to respect that Canadian tradition while on our campus. Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.

Francois Houle,
Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa”

I don’t know if the letter was meant to be public. But it has been reproduced in many Right-leaning forums, the National Post among them. Poor Dr Houle was now on the radar of the vicious, bitter and petty extreme Right-wing blogosphere, for what really is a polite letter.

Now, many Coulter supporters read this letter as a veiled threat of criminal action. There’s nothing veiled about it. I think it’s quite a reasonable letter, but it is clear in its intent and implications. If some of Coulter’s speeches in the USA were spoken in Canada, they might very well constitute hate crime under our current laws. The letter did not discourage her from coming or threaten to ban her if she didn’t promise to “play nice”. It just suggested that the university would feel compelled to add to its ridiculous administrative burden if Coulter did indeed give her standard US campus presentation on Canadian soil.

So far, so good…. Except that Coulter, seeing a chance to gain some press over what would have otherwise been yet another barely noticed campus tour, saw her opening. She re-printed the letter on her column, with the provocative –and incorrect– title, “Canadian University Provost Wants To Send Me To Jail… For a Speech I Haven’t Given Yet“. At that point, what transpired next was fairly predictable for anyone who’s observed the shenanigans of the bored and angry far-Right as much as I have.

Now, being in Mexico, I haven’t been privy to all the details of what’s happening on campus. But essentially, citing fears for Coulter’s personal safety, “organizers” cancelled her appearance. The “organizers”, as I understand it, were a campus-based student group. This is important: the university never cancelled Coulter’s appearance; her own representatives appear to have done so, or at least a campus group in coordination with Coulter’s representatives did so. Keep in mind that I have no facts beyond that which are published in the papers, and I’m observing all of this from Mexico. So, really, what do I know?

Okay, now on to the really predictable part. With the appearance cancelled, Coulter retained none other than Ezra Levant to –here it comes– represent her in a human rights complaint against the University of Ottawa.

Now, I have talked about Ezra Levant many times in the past in this space. There was Ezra’s seeming tolerance of hate speech on his own website. There was more of the same. There was Ezra’s attacks on former Liberal leader Stephane Dion. There was Ezra’s seeming blind love for all things George Bush. Oh, I’ve talked about him many many times before. One of his supporters even suggested that Ezra would one day track me down and beat me up. (Yeah, I laughed, too. I’m not that hard to find.)

Now the important thing about Levant, at least with respect to the current topic, is that he styles himself as an uncompromising defender of free speech. This, in and of itself, is a great thing. Who doesn’t love a defender or liberties? The problem is that his support only seems to extend to people who want to say things that he agrees with.

For example, when George Galloway was banned from speaking in Canada –a true and obvious denial of free speech!– Levant said of the issue:

“I don’t see this as a free speech issue; I see it as a sovereignty issue — keeping out an undesirable foreigner who has no right to be here, and who boasts about violating our criminal code.”

“Undesirable foreigner who has no right to be here”? Sounds like a certain skinny blonde firebrand with a hate-on for Muslims. Someone “who boasts about violating our criminal code”? Again, if Coulter brags in her column that the things she says would get her arrested in Canada, I think that that constitutes “boasting about our criminal code.” How about it, Ezra?

(By the way, read my whole take on the Galloway affair here.)

Levant is claiming that his reasons for taking on the Coulter case is to show how duplicitous the human rights tribunal process is, and that it is biased against conservatives. I don’t know if that’s true. But I think Levant lost pretty much all his credibility with not only his failure to defend Galloway’s right of free speech in Canada, but his active support for the denial of those rights. Levant would be more convincing if he were more consistent with his views and appplications of his principles.

What about Coulter? Since I started writing this post about 10 minutes ago, I received an email from her automatic listserv (someone thought it was funny to sign me up; I actually kind of enjoy deleting her emails). You can read her current column here (which is exactly what she wants you to do; so I guess I’m helping her out, as well.) It’s interesting how the mighty have fallen. Once a syndicated columnist at leading papers, a promising lawyer, someone who, I think, even worked at the White House briefly, Coulter is now calling out members of the SFUO –the University of Ottawa’s student federation! Picking fights with undergrads? Really? Oh Ann.

So Coulter is denouncing someone’s decision to “deny” her he opportunity to spread her extreme views on a college campus. Hmmm, this sounds vaguely familiar. Let me see… Columbia University once compared Coulter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Why it this relevant? Because Ahmadinejad once spoke at the Columbia campus, despite conservatives trying really hard to prevent him from doing so.

In fact, prior to the Iranian leader’s appearance, conservative forces rallied under the leadership of such Coulter compatriots as Michelle Malkin, who issued this call for supporters to send a message to the university administration that Ahmadinejad was not welcome on campus.

When Coulter herself was asked about Ahmadinejad’s Columbia appearance, she said this:

“You know, I give a lot of college speeches, I know how colleges behave, and there is the least free speech on a college campus as any place in America. It is like Iran—so for them to be saying they are allowing this guy to speak because of free speech, you know, your head explodes.”

Er… what? Further in the same interview, Coulter suggested that by allowing Ahmadinejad to speak, Columbia was “aiding the other side.” At least that’s the way I read it. Coulter is a master of dancing around topics so deftly that it’s hard to pin her down to any particular viewpoints, except that liberals are sissies and Muslims are evil.

The president of the University of Ottawa, Mr Allan Rock, a seasoned diplomat, issued the following statement to all members of the university community today:

“On Tuesday, March 23, an appearance by Ann Coulter was scheduled on our campus, organized by the International Free Press Society Canada and the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute.

The University of Ottawa has always promoted and defended freedom of expression. For that reason, we did not at any time oppose Ann Coulter’s appearance. Whether it is Ann Coulter or any other speaker, diverse views have always been and continue to be welcome on our campus.

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. At that time, a crowd of about one thousand people had peacefully gathered at Marion Hall.

“Freedom of expression is a core value that the University of Ottawa has always promoted,” said Allan Rock, President of the University. “We have a long history of hosting contentious and controversial speakers on our campus. Last night was no exception, as people gathered here to listen to and debate Ann Coulter’s opinions.

I encourage our students, faculty and other members of our community to maintain our University as an open forum for diverse opinions. Ours is a safe and democratic environment for the expression of views, and we will keep it that way.”

It doesn’t sound to me like anyone’s free speech was being curtailed. In fact, all official missives suggest that Coulter was openly welcomed to the university campus. I think what actually happened was that when Professor Roule sent that ill-advised letter, the Coulter-ites and their hypocritical self-styled supporter of “free speech for people I agree with”, Ezra Levant, saw this as an opportunity to manufacture an event and make both Levant and Coulter briefly relevant again.

That is all. Nothing more to see here. Ignore the pests and they’ll just go back to screaming about Communists and evolutionists in their basement meetings.