Now that the storm surrounding Ann Coulter’s visit to University of Ottawa has subsided, it’s worth while asking who is really to blame for the behaviour of those students who sought to prevent her from speaking. Most observers point an accusing finger at university VP Francois Houle, claiming that his letter to Ms. Coulter suggesting that she risked prosecution for promoting hatred was a green light for protesters. I think that’s too easy an explanation.
Not that I am defending M. Houle’s letter or his decision to send it. It’s just that I think that focusing attention too narrowly on it and events at University of Ottawa misses the point.
In the first place, Mr. Houle’s letter could not be fairly characterized as inflammatory in any sense of the term. On the contrary, its tone was polite, albeit dripping with condescension. This latter fact might rightly have infuriated its addressee (and her supporters), but incite the crowd? I think not. As for the assertion that the letter constituted a “veiled threat”, after reading it several times I can only say that if it did indeed contain a threat, it was so difficult to discern that it might as well have been hiding behind a burka, let alone a veil.
The real problem with M. Houle’s now infamous letter lies not in its supposed malevolent nature, but rather in its unfortunate, but nevertheless unimpeachable, accuracy. Everything that Mr. Houle wrote with regard to laws proscribing free speech in Canada was true; every cautionary note he struck, justified to the nth degree. He may have overstepped the boundaries of good taste in communicating this to Ms. Coulter, but his note could just as easily have been sent to a good friend intent on delivering a lecture on a controversial topic, rather than an ideological opponent.
The same thing can be said for the students protesting Ms. Coulter’s lecture that night. Unlike most pundits who have pronounced judgment against these activists, I was there, and not just in the safe confines of the lecture hall either. Having arrived at the campus somewhat later than planned, my wife and I had to push our way past the demonstrators to gain access to the event, giving us the opportunity to get up close and personal with some. What was striking about these students was not the violence of their actions or words, but rather how ostensibly mainstream their message was: “No More Hate Speech!”
Who can argue with that?
Certainly the protesters overstepped their own boundaries by moving beyond protest to actually preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking, but in doing so, were they not acting in the best tradition (I use the word loosely) of the new Canada, where feelings rule supreme and critical thinking is something we reserve for the other guy’s ideas, rather than our own?
The uncomfortable truth of this sorry affair is that there is blame to be laid, but it rests neither with student leaders, nor M. Houle, nor even with the feckless Alan Rock, President of University of Ottawa, whose reaction to the criticism of the institution he runs can be summarized in a single word – pathetic. It rests with laws that effectively criminalize dissenting opinions and the kangaroo courts known as human rights tribunals that prosecute the offenders.
But it doesn’t end there. It extends to our elected officials who recognize, not just the fundamental injustice of these laws and the extortionist industry they have spawned, but more importantly, the erosion of basic liberal democratic principles that they represent. Many politicians speak out in defence free speech and liberty, but thus far none have had the courage to initiate a legislative campaign to protect them. It’s the politicians – not Mr. Houle and his trifling opinions, or the students who stopped Ann Coulter from speaking – who are emerging as the real, if unwitting, villains in this saga, because they have the power to do something about it, but they refuse. Worse, we citizens are complicit for not demanding that they do.
It has been said that the law is a great teacher. If that’s so, then both Mr. Houle and the students at University of Ottawa have learned their lessons well.
Don’t like what they’ve been taught? The solution is simple – change the law.