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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The menace of free speech? Add to ...

Ann Coulter sucker-punched us!

That's what a lot of people think. A loud-mouthed, trash-talking aging babe rides into town, taunts the rubes, engineers the cancellation of her own speaking engagement in a smallish room at a second-tier university, declares herself a victim and makes prime-time news for an entire week. Not bad for a fading star from the Conservative Entertainment Network.

In fact, it was François Houle who sucker-punched us. He's the provost of the University of Ottawa - the one who wrote that cringe-inducing letter warning her to watch her mouth, because the laws are different here. What was he thinking? Anyone who has ever turned on Fox TV would know that letter would be catnip to a cat. An attack cat.

"Promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges," the letter warned. "I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind."

Needless to say, respect and civility are not Ms. Coulter's shtick. Incendiary, quasi-racist insults (delivered with a wink) are her shtick. That's how she makes a living. That's how many people make a living. I doubt, however, that Mr. Houle thought of sending such a letter to any of the respectful, civil folks who turn up to speak at Israeli Apartheid Week.

Mr. Houle made a triple blunder - strategic, political and moral. If you have any doubt about whether he reflects the mindset at the top of the U of Zero (as it is sometimes unkindly known), here is an internal e-mail from another senior administrator, obtained by CTV: "I guess we now know what upsets the 'far right': It's when we demand that they be civil in their discourse. It's when we invite them to weigh their words and be responsible in expressing views." The student union banned the posters for her speech from the student centre because she was considered too inflammatory.

The university's senior administrators are in denial mode. The president, Allan Rock, declared that freedom of speech is a core value at the university. He made no mention of the provost. He blamed Ms. Coulter's organizers for cancelling her speech.

There was a little truth in that, but not a lot. Around a thousand people turned out to see what the Houle-induced fuss was all about - far too many for the modest venue. They included a couple of hundred protesters. Police were summoned. Eyewitnesses say it was a bit of a mash-up, and people got jammed against the doors. Someone set off a fire alarm. Police confirm that it was they who advised the organizers to cancel.

Many people suspect that Ms. Coulter was getting her tactical advice from Ezra Levant, the loud-mouthed scourge of left-leaning academics and human-rights commissions. Mr. Levant, in his characteristic style, referred to the protesting students as "brownshirts." Although he is widely suspected of leaking the Houle letter to the National Post, where it wound up on the front page, this is not the case. The letter was leaked by Doug Pepper, the publisher of McClelland and Stewart. He is an old friend and editor of the stringy agitator. His brother-in-law is the Post's editor.

To me, the most alarming aspect of this whole affair is not the student protesters, who are simply doing what students have always done - protest. In this case, they're only repeating what they've been taught. For years, they have been told that discrimination is the highest crime of all. Today, this is commonly interpreted to mean that everybody has the right to be free from any kind of insult, upset, or perturbation that might pose a challenge to their peace of mind, even when they can freely choose not to expose themselves to it.

At universities and schools, the most important word these days is "safe." "Safe" does not mean physical security. "Safe" means safe from being offended - or even feeling offended. As one of the protesters at the U of O said, "It's important to recognize that that the students want a safe campus." Mr. Rock also used the word "safe." "Ours is a safe and democratic environment for the expression of views, and we will keep it that way," his statement said.

But democracy can be raucous. "Safe" and "democratic" don't always mix. And it's no step at all from the right to not feel offended to the demand that if something offends me, or might possibly offend me or anybody else, then it should be banned.

History has taken quite a turn. In ancient times (Berkeley in the '60s), student protesters took to the streets to demand free speech on campus. Now they demand to suppress it.

This view - that unpopular opinions should not be expressed in public because they are dangerous - is shared by an alarming number of adults, especially those who toil in the field of human rights. On a CBC radio phone-in show the other day, a highly agitated man who identified himself as a human-rights lawyer argued that Ms. Coulter should be banned from speaking because she is a human-rights abuser. Another caller, who proudly identified herself as a former human-rights investigator, said, "If any Canadian spoke like Ann Coulter, he'd be jailed." In her view, Ms. Coulter has "infringed on our right to be safe, secure and not discriminated against. Canadian universities should grow a backbone and get rid of this menace."

In fact, Canadian human-rights commissions have been trying to get rid of the menace of free speech for quite a while. (I'm glad to say they're losing.) This explains Ms. Coulter's mischievous plan to file a human-rights complaint against the university. She and Mr. Levant want to make our human-rights commissions look even sillier than they do already.

The sad thing is that Mr. Houle's letter was quite correct. Free speech is different here in Canada. It is seen as highly dangerous. That is why our government has denied entry to such characters as George Galloway (Hamas lover) and Bobby Seale (former Black Panther). A federal MP even tried to ban the rapper 50 Cent (corrupter of youth). Students have shut down Benjamin Netanyahu (the current Prime Minister of Israel), and professors have turned their backs on Margaret Somerville (pro-life), who was advised to wear flat shoes in case she had to run for it.

We're not ideological about these things. We'll try to shut down anyone. And if a fading harridan exploits that to the max, who should we blame? Not her.

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