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The Globe and Mail

Universities are bastions of free speech? Not in Canada

Ian Hunter, professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario

The Globe and Mail

The louts and yobbos who prevented Ann Coulter from speaking at the University of Ottawa this week must have gladdened the heart of the university's vice-president academic and provost, François Houle, who had pre-emptively sent her a warning not to say anything too controversial lest delicate Canadian sensibilities be ruffled.

Given that Mr. Houle's boss, Allan Rock, a former federal justice minister and attorney-general, is president of the university, the threat of unleashing Canadian law against an invited speaker could not be blithely ignored.

Of course, Canadian universities long ago forfeited any claim they ever had to be considered bastions of independent thought and speech. In fact, all universities shelter within their grey headquarters petty bureaucrats called "equity officers" whose job it is to ensure that groupthink prevails at all times.

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Last year, Queen's University went further, hiring students to surreptitiously eavesdrop on other student conversations lest anything untoward be said. This plan was dropped when some alumni objected, but it gives a good indication of the mindset of university administrators. You might recall that, a decade ago, administrators at the University of Western Ontario did everything in their power to make psychology professor Philippe Rushton a pariah on campus because of his unorthodox research conclusions on race and IQ.

Our universities can best be understood today as finishing schools in political correctness. From pre-kindergarten days, students have been brainwashed by the liberal consensus on all issues - political, moral, social. The university exists to round that off with a little learning. So the Ann Coulter saga is neither the first nor the last to expose the corrupt heart of the university.

Ms. Coulter, who says she has given hundreds of talks at North American campuses without incident, said the risk of physical violence in Ottawa was too great for her to proceed. "I'm guessing the scores to get into the University of Ottawa are not very challenging," she told The Globe and Mail. Even if true, that's not the source of the problem.

Canada's aversion to free speech has two legislative sources. The "hate literature" sections of the Criminal Code prohibit any communication that may expose a person to hatred because of colour, race, religion or ethnic origin. Since a Crown attorney is not required to prove either specific intent or actual harm, this section has a chilling effect on free speech, even though prosecutions are infrequent.

Even more totalitarian are the provisions of provincial human-rights legislation; these statutes routinely dispense with most of the safeguards built into the criminal law, including the presumption of innocence, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, an impartial court, and truth as a defence. The cost of defending oneself before kangaroo tribunals will incline most people to keep quiet.

Ms. Coulter has promised to file a human-rights complaint over this week's cancellation, portraying herself as a victim of "hate speech." Take my advice, Ms. Coulter: Save your breath to cool your porridge. Human-rights commissions are not interested in your rights. To human-rights types, the political right has no rights. You are the problem. What you say might cause offence, and we can't have that.

Truth to tell, I don't feel much sympathy for Ann Coulter. I looked through her 2009 book Guilty: Liberal "Victims" and Their Assault on America and considered it mostly puerile nonsense. I feel no sympathy at all for the University of Ottawa, its ex-politician president and his administration, or its coddled and mostly illiterate students. I do feel sympathy for a handful of professors who try to teach there, that dwindling band who retain a vestigial memory of what a university should be. To them I say: Soldier on, retirement beckons.

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Ian Hunter is professor emeritus of law at the University of Western Ontario.

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