Canada has a free speech problem. It’s strange that it took a visit from an American to see that. But now that we’ve seen it, who will fix it?
The real threat to civil discourse
The University of Ottawa disgraced itself on Tuesday night with its treatment of Ann Coulter, the U.S. conservative pundit. In a spectacle that earned international attention, hundreds of shouting protesters stopped Coulter’s speech from proceeding through pure physical intimidation.
The protesters had bigger plans than mere heckling.Â Just look at their venomous Facebook page dedicated to disrupting the event: Vanessa Alexandra Peterson wrote “I wonder what the security would be like. I want to throw rotten veggies and eggs at her evil Barbie mask.” Saif Latif wrote “somebody needs to throw a pie at her during her speech like they did at the University of Arizona,” to which Guillaume Pelegrin replied “I hope someone will get arrested.” More than 500 people on that group whipped each other up into a hateful frenzy, publicly spelling out their fantasies.
It was not anti-Coulter hate that shut down her speech at U of O. Hate is a human emotion, not an action. Nor was it mere hateful words. Words can be noisy, but they can only hurt feelings. Rather, 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.Â As Ottawa Police Sgt. Dan Beauchamp said, “it’s a public safety issue.”
Where did this abusive student culture come from? What explains the complete lack of tolerance for different opinions? Some of the blame must surely lie at the feet of U of O’s administration. Last week, FranÃ§ois Houle, the university’s vice-president, sent a letter to Coulter saying she should “educate” herself about “what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before (her) planned visit.” He warned that her comments could “lead to criminal charges.”
The students got the message: Coulter was unwelcome, and the university itself was actively trying to scare her off, or get her to change her speech. No one less than the vice-president had signalled that the ancient academic ideals of free discourse had been replaced with conformity, political correctness, censorship — and even the threat of criminal prosecution.
Houle’s letter was like a starter pistol for radical students, who went from tearing down Coulter posters to organizing their rampage. Really, other than tactics, how different was their approach to censorship than Houle’s?
It is now two days since the near-riot at U of O, and Houle has not seen fit to utter a word against those who truly violated “what is acceptable in Canada” — his student disrupters. He had threatened Coulter before she even said a word; yet after his students’ conduct, he remains silent. He had warned Coulter to “weigh (her) words with respect and civility,” to show “restraint, respect and consideration” and to have a “more civilized discussion.” No such comments have come from him to the disrupters, even after the fact.
Which is not surprising.
The U of O indulges some of most offensive conduct in the country on their campus. Each year, for example, they happily host an anti-Semitic festival called Israel Apartheid Week. Never has Houle seen fit to issue a warning to his campus’s steady stream of Jew-baiters to govern their tongues. In fact, to my knowledge, no left-wing activist has ever received a threat of criminal prosecution. Only Ann Coulter did.