I didn't attend the protests over US right-wing shock jock Ann Coulter's meeting at University of Ottawa on Tuesday night -- I was at the book launch for the new Canadian edition of Ian Angus's book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice (congratulations, Ian) -- but I wonder if there isn't an important lesson for the left in the public uproar over "free speech" that has erupted in the wake of Coulter's cancellation of her appearance.
Briefly, for those who haven't seen the extensive coverage in the Canadian press, Coulter was invited by the campus Conservative club to address a public meeting as part of her three-city tour sponsored by the ultraright "International Free Press Society". This society is headed by Ezra Levant, a former Tory MP who once republished the infamous Danish anti-Mohammed cartoons in an obscure on-line publication. Angered by reports of Coulter's racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and just plain reactionary views -- she's a commentator on Fox News -- the University student union moved to prohibit posters advertising the meeting and called on the university to ban Coulter's appearance. A Facebook group was formed to urge readers to attend and disrupt the talk, but also to sign a petition "to ban Ann Coulter from our campus". It was publicized by, among others, the International Socialists.
The University did not ban the meeting, but its vice-president academic and provost, François Houle, sent Coulter an email warning her that under Canada's criminal and defamation laws she should be mindful not to make herself liable for "promoting hatred" against an "identifiable group". Whatever his intentions -- the letter could, on its face, be construed as sound legal advice -- Houle's message, not the criminal legislation itself, was seized on by a range of right-wing commentators as an infringement of "free speech". In this polarized atmosphere, between one and two thousand students showed up to protest Coulter's speech, most of them unable to make their way into the meeting room which could accommodate only 400. Coulter's organizers then cancelled her appearance, citing "security" concerns. Student federation president Seamus Wolfe was exultant: "I'm proud students came together to prevent Ann Coulter -- someone who has constantly waded well into the territory of hate speech -- from using a public institution as a soapbox to spread her vile message," he was reported as saying.
The right wing lost no time in turning the incident into an attack on the left and progressive causes, all in the name of "free speech". Typical is the lead editorial in today's Ottawa Citizen, entitled "Mob rules at the U of O". It cites "the spectacle at the University of Ottawa" as an example of the "thuggery of student activists... a growing problem at Canadian campuses". As examples of what it termed "totalitarianism on Canadian campuses", the editorial cited a protest at Montréal's Concordia University that "prevented Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking", and alleged harassment of "pro-life student groups". And, of course, the recent week of activities on the city's campuses sponsored by Students Against Israeli Apartheid was mentioned -- although in the editorial's version, "no one threatened to assault the organizers or disrupt the event." In fact, last year the administration at Carleton University banned the poster advertising that event, and university and government officials across Canada have harassed students and others who are critical of Israel.
These "free speech" protests are sheer hypocrisy. Where was the Ottawa Citizen, or all the other right-wing defenders of "free speech", when British MP George Galloway was banned by the government from entering Canada for an antiwar speaking tour? Or just last week, when Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghouti was denied a visa to attend anti-Zionist events in Canada? Or the recent government funding cuts to church groups and rights organizations that have assisted Palestinians or been critical of Israel's policies? As Globe & Mail columnist Lawrence Martin notes today (in an exception to most of the news coverage of the U of O incident), for the Tory government, "freedom of expression depends on the type of expression". It's OK for an Ann Coulter. But not for many others, including government officials and whistle-blowing civil servants who don't toe the government's line. Martin cited a whole series of such incidents. The Coulter incident, in fact, gave the real censors of free speech and transparency a pretext to pass themselves off as democrats when the reality is quite otherwise.
I think it was inspiring to find so many students willing to protest the views of Coulter and her Conservative friends. But, for what it's worth, I think the student union and its supporters should have given more thought to the message they wished to convey. The same student leaders have in recent years had to fight for their right to speak out on the campuses and elsewhere in opposition to Israeli Apartheid and in defense of other progressive causes. Why should they place themselves in a position to be portrayed as opponents of the free speech of others? It is one thing to protest the content of Coulter's message, another to call on the university or other authorities to ban her meeting. An effective protest might have included, in addition to the protest outside, an organized attempt to ensure critical attendance at the meeting, where her views could be confronted and challenged.
And we need to be wary of legal restrictions on speech such as the "hate propaganda" provisions in the Criminal Code. More often than not, they will be used against the left, not the right. Hate-propaganda bans give the state further weapons in criminalizing dissent -- as we see when the likes of Jason Kenney, Canada's Immigration minister, threaten to use it against the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
-- Richard Fidler