Currently the blogosphere is reeling over an incident at the University of Ottawa, where Ann Coulter was unable to participate in a forum due to "security concerns" (protesters disrupting the event). Inevitably perhaps, the spectre of what the Bishop of Willesden recently called "the illiberal liberal canard" over at the SOF boards has loomed large. There's nothing the hard right loves more than a self-avowed champion of tolerance is caught in the act of intolerance!
I once attended a service at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto with family members who are active there. In the sermon, the minister grappled with precisely this paradox. How do progressive folk respond to intolerance without stooping to it?
It's unfortunate that this incident is being used to portray Canada as an effete socialist state feeble on free speech protection. Let's be real here. This is a university campus, a place for reasoned discourse. Thinkers left and right are free to come and express their views: that's academic integrity. But that same integrity obligates us to maintain the intellectual and ethical tenor of the university. No one is hucking tomatoes at George Grant or William F. Buckley Jr here. Ann Coulter is a trash columnist, who has dedicated her career to perpetuating exactly the sort of hollow taking-points political pseudo-debate she professes to deride. She has as much place addressing a community of scholars as does Maury Povich.
Perhaps more importantly, as the provost of the University noted in today's Toronto Star, Canada's conception of free speech is not the same as the USA's. (I know, it never ceases to blow their minds that there are other governments in the world, but it's true. We've got a homemade constitution and everything). Whereas the American formulation is pretty much unbridled (in the rugged individualist tradition they have inherited), our constitutional tradition sees free speech not as an end in itself but as a means to "peace, order, and good government." Indeed, the possibility of overriding provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when weighing conflicting rights against each other (say, those of Arab UofO students who might not take kindly to being called "ragheads") is built right into the Charter itself (the "reasonable infringement" clause of section 1). Coulter was warned in advance of the relevant law, and how did she respond? She called for an investigation of the provost for "promoting hatred of an identifiable group" (conservatives!) in the letter. And the poor schmuck was just the messenger: it's not as though he crafted the law. Apparently Coulter objected to the implication that as a Conservative she was automatically more likely to commit hate speech (apparently the notion that the concern was based on her actual past comments and not merely hypothetical didn't occur to her).
On a right-wing American blog that happened to be my first Google result on the story, one commenter accused another (who had not taken up the mantle of St Ann's martyrdom) of not representing "all Canadians," just "the socialists," which I found odd given that Americans of that political persuasion tend to consider "all Canadians" to be "socialists." (If universal health care is creeping socialism, someone better call the red squad on the Tories!) The authors of the blog also took issue with the protesters for not being equally vocal in opposing Israeli Apartheid Week (because apparently calling attention to the dismal and unjust conditions in which Palestinians live is tantamount to denial of the Shoah).
Canadian students are exasperated. (As much as student union leaders fondly hope for a Nanterre in the streets of Ottawa, it is Canada after all: exasperated is as far as it usually goes). In the midst of an economic crisis that we didn't cause, it's an insult to bring in an apologist for the broken system to spout racist, misogynist, and heterosexist polemics in our own backyard. Good on the students of Ottawa U for defending the integrity of the academy. Perhaps there is hope for our student movement after all.