It's springtime in Ottawa and, as usual, young men and women's fancy turns to - free speech and censorship? Such, at least, was the case at the University of Ottawa this week after Ann Coulter's non-visit visit. While the facts are still fuzzy (even to those of us who attended), we shouldn't let that stop us from using it as an opportunity to discuss the nature and complexity of democratic free speech.
There is no question that both Ms. Coulter and the protesters were entirely in their rights to express their ideas. Inviting controversial speakers and organizing protests against them has a long history in Canada and at Canadian universities. Citizens of all political colours do it, and there are many reasons to support it.
Those who encourage these practices often imply that they are justified because we have an unlimited right to free speech. This, however, is neither historically accurate nor philosophically convincing. For one thing, the right to free speech in even the freest democracies has never been pure and unlimited. Whether in the form of civil and criminal laws against libel or death threats, or constitutional mechanisms or doctrines that weigh the right to speech against other contending rights and concerns (the U.S. "clear and present danger" doctrine, for example), the right to free speech has always been limited.
These limitations are often far too onerous, are unjustified or are tools used to favour certain groups and interests over others. Hence, the critical importance of civil liberties groups and the need for citizens to actively question and evaluate any attempt to limit free speech. But we also need to remember that, even in theory, the principle of free speech is not a pure metaphysical law that says we are literally free to say anything we like.
The most influential theories of free speech see it as a set of profound commitments and beliefs: that more freedom of expression is better than less, that we should extend freedom of speech as far as possible, and that we should accept public limits on speech only in very exceptional cases where it is evident that some sort of immediate and direct harm will be caused by those speech acts. In this sense, both Canada and the United States closely (though in slightly different ways and certainly not perfectly) embody the tenets of the most famous theory of free speech: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.
But therein lies the rub. For certain questions that Mill took to be fairly simple and self-evident are, in fact, extraordinarily complex. When, if ever, does speech "harm" enough to justify its limitation? How do we define and measure that type of "harm"? How direct and immediate must the link between the words and the act be? Answering these questions is absolutely necessary because they allow us to distinguish between speech that is merely annoying and offensive (swearing) and speech that is truly dangerous (uttering death threats).
On one level, the answers given to these questions are at the crux of the disagreement between the protesters and the speakers. The strongest argument on the side of the protesters is the idea that Ms. Coulter's polemical use of certain stereotypes broadly inspires people to hold beliefs and act in ways that are concretely harmful and unjustifiably discriminatory to certain groups. This is what they mean when they say Ms. Coulter encourages Islamophobia. Ms. Coulter would challenge that interpretation of "harm," arguing that the effects of her speech are positive insofar as her words inspire debate, and that shutting down debate has far more negative effects than any possible negative stereotyping could.
The irony, however, is that both sides also use the logic of the other when it suits them. When evaluating the pre-emptive letter from the University of Ottawa's provost, it was the Coulter side that argued that the provost's words constituted a clear "harm" in the form of a veiled threat. Presumably, the protesters would argue that their protests could never be interpreted as constituting any immediate danger.
There is a complex debate bubbling beneath the surface - one that has profound public policy implications. Tilling this ground, however, is not best done using the tools of polemics, since polemics is a poor method for exploring the grey areas of life. On these questions, all the most contentious issues are grey. So one needs to adopt an ethos of agonistic respect. Neither the speakers nor the protesters are likely to change their political views or drop the polemics. But, frankly, it's not them I'm thinking about. It's the rest of us.
Canada's public square would benefit immensely from a thoughtful and nuanced consideration of the meaning and role of freedom of speech. So if the Coulter event can inspire us to set aside shrill polemics and partisan investments for a few moments to think about the complex nature of free speech and its implications, we can be thankful that something positive has come of it.
Paul Saurette is associate professor of political philosophy at the University of Ottawa.
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