When protesters at the University of Ottawa derailed a planned speech by the conservative U.S. pundit Ann Coulter this week, the forces of intimidation won out over public inquiry. It was a defeat of the university's basic mission to educate and enlighten.
Universities have an obligation to protect the free exchange of ideas on campus, however offensive to someone those ideas might be. Today it is Ms. Coulter being silenced. Who will it be tomorrow? Anything that challenges people may offend someone. Therein lies the possibility of social change.
The university failed to uphold its mission in two key ways. First, it warned Ms. Coulter that she might run afoul of Canada's anti-hate laws and should be careful in what she said. This inappropriate warning served as fuel for the more strident among Ms. Coulter's adversaries. Second, the university does not appear to have anticipated what sort of security Ms. Coulter would need in the inflamed atmosphere. (When police and security officials felt the event could not go on safely in the face of unruly protests, organizers cancelled the speech.)
The type of censorship afoot on university campuses such as the University of Ottawa's has the sort of mushy, pleasant-sounding rationale that could be applied to just about anything and anyone. As one detractor, Rita Valerino, a second-year sociology and women's studies student, put it: "I was just worried that things were going to be said about certain groups of people that were going to make them feel very unsafe and very uncomfortable and we promise our students here at the University of Ottawa a safe, positive space." That may be the new standard for universities: Political speech, to be safe from official warnings and to be worthy of sufficient protection, should not make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
Not much political speech would be left. Universities would be sleepy, if soothing, places. All ideas welcome, as long as they are completely accepted by all, or at least, the people who matter.
And who loses in that rigid scenario? In some periods, it might have been women who made people (male people) uncomfortable with their notions of equality; in others, gays and lesbians; in still others, those who would bash Israel with the offensive Israeli Apartheid Week. Overall, though, the university itself loses out when it lacks the courage to be a social laboratory, dangerous and discomfiting.