Canada’s clampdown on free speech
ANN COULTER made headlines this week not for controversial things she said, for once, but for what she didn’t say. The conservative commentator canceled her scheduled speech at the University of Ottawa after hundreds of students protested her visit and the school’s provost warned her she might face criminal charges if she made racist remarks.
Coulter’s hate-filled writing is mostly despised by America’s northern neighbors, and rightly so. But Canada’s treatment of the right-wing instigator is only the latest in a disturbing line of clampdowns on offensive and unpopular ideas. Though in some ways the left-wing utopia many American liberals imagine it to be, Canada is, on matters of free speech,deeply wrong.
Canada’s un-welcome mat for Coulter comes at a time when the country’s restrictive speech policies continue to be debated. In 2006, the now-defunct Western Standard magazine reprinted the Danish cartoons that sparked riots across Europe and the Muslim world. Ezra Levant, publisher of the magazine (where I was a reporter), was called before a hearing with the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
Levant told the commission he had done nothing wrong and would never answer to the state for his ideas. The hearing was posted on YouTube, where it became a mini-sensation, watched more than half a million times.
The case became a cause célèbre for free speech advocates: PEN Canada, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association all came to Levant’s defense.It’s easy to see why. Canada’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech — but there are two limits. First, laws prohibit incitement of hatred of people based on their color, race, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. Second, it is illegal to communicate by phone or Internet any material “that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.’’ These are the loopholes through which all the country’s controversies enter.
Though written to prevent neo-Nazis and other odious characters from spewing their toxins, these restrictions have become human rights violations in themselves. Among the targets of these laws have been anti-American protesters, an anti-gay Christian pastor, radical Islamists, anti-Hindu Sikhs, French-Canadian nationalists, a movie sympathetic to South Africa, an anti-Semitic Indian, a pro-Zionist book, a Jewish community leader and Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.’’
In other words, anybody with an unpopular viewpoint can become fodder for the courts, which alone are granted the freedom to determine the limits of civilized ideas. The laws as they were written were a recipe for censorship, and the meal has now been cooked.
Worse, the legal restrictions on free speech have contributed to a climate where freedom of thought and speech is considered a disposable value. During a 2008 case examining a white supremacist, a lead investigator for the Human Rights Commission was asked what value she gave to the freedom of speech. She responded: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value. It’s not my job to give value to an American concept.’’ Various speakers in recent years have been forced to cancel their talks because of possible violence. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of pushback against the speech laws, with Liberal Members of Parliament suggesting that the Human Rights Commission be shut down.
Enter Ann Coulter and her Canadian tour. After she disgustingly told a Muslim student at the University of Western Ontario to “ride a camel,’’ the University of Ottawa provost preempted her visit by telling her any offensive remarks could “lead to criminal charges.’’
Hundreds of students protested her visit, openly desiring to shut her talk down and turning it into a near-riot. Police recommended Coulter cancel her appearance, and the event organizers agreed.
But whatever else she says, Coulter does not tell her readers and audiences to immediately take up violence. She is not literally dangerous. Racist, offensive, stupid, angering — yes. But not dangerous.What is dangerous is Canada’s intolerance of offensive speech.
American liberals are used to looking up on the map in envy, but ideas on speech are one instance when Canadians should look south.
It is long past time to free Canada’s speech. Even if it means putting up with Ann Coulter.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Canadian writer living in Washington.