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Wente vs. Saurette

The Coulter debate: Can you be too incendiary? Add to ...

University of Ottawa provost Francois Houle was criticized by many when he wrote a letter earlier this week to Ann Coulter cautioning her to "educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada" before her scheduled appearance at the university (since cancelled). He wrote that "promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges."

To debate the implications of the Coulter Affair and its fallout, The Globe and Mail invited Paul Saurette, Associate professor of political philosophy, University of Ottawa, to exchange e-mails with National Newspaper Award-winning Globe columnist Margaret Wente.

We started the debate by asking:

Was Mr. Houle reaching beyond his grasp? Should universities limit free speech on campus?

Margaret Wente: Francois Houle walked right into a trap. If he knew anything about Ann Coulter, he would have known his letter - the one warning her that "promoting hatred….could lead to crimnal charges" - would be like catnip to a cat.

Universities should do everything possible not to limit free speech on campus. But some of our universities - often with the best of intentions - have become bastions of repression. That's depressing.

Over to you, Paul

Paul Saurette: Since I have no knowledge of the context surrounding the writing and sending the letter I don't feel that it's fair to evaluate it in terms of the Provost himself. Plus, personalizing these sorts of institutional decisions is one of the classic ways that a reasonable debate is reframed as a polemical ad hominem rant. It is no surprise that Ann Coulter has gone this route over the last few days claiming, for example, that Canadians "used to be so cool. You were smokers. You had epic hockey fights. We had half our comedians from Canada. Now you're all a bunch of girls named Francois." Funny maybe. But certainly not conducive to actually thinking this thing through.

OK - now to the guts of the issue. Margaret - you're absolutely right. From a strategic position, had the university thought about the political context and how the letter could be interpreted, they would have had to conclude that it was a public relations 'challenge' in the making.

But strategic considerations should not necessarily be the primary criteria when a public institution makes its decisions. On important issues of principle, the question should be what is the right thing to do.

So - was it the right thing to do? I agree that we want universities to be as open as possible and have a wide freedom of expression. And I also agree that good intentions can sometimes create bad policies. However, I'm not sure that it is clear that in general - or in particular in this case - that freedom of expression was stomped on and thus is an example of the bastions of repression.

To believe this to be the case, we would have to believe that the university's letter primarily functioned as a "veiled threat" that both (a) chilled her willingness and ability to speak and (b) encouraged protesters to behave in such a way that there was no other possibility but to cancel the event.

What do you think Margaret? Do you believe that the university's letter and the protesters' chants cowed the mighty Ann Coulter into silence?

Cheers, Paul

Margaret Wente: First, I'd note that free speech debates almost always arise from real events, and it's often hard to separate the two. This point is sometimes poorly understood. I've seen a surprising amount of comment that basically says, "Ann Coulter is a racist, and therefore she should be banned from Canada."

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