Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Glenn Greenwald writes about the controversy last week over an appearance by Ann Coulter in Canada and a letter sent to her by the provost of the university at which she was speaking. Referring to the “creepy tyranny of Canada’s hate speech laws,” Greenwald reprints the full letter from the provost, as I will do here:

Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. . . .

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. . . .

Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.


Francois Houle,

Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa

Creepy indeed, especially in the highly dubious claim that such violations of freedom of speech are necessary to make society more civilized. Greenwald responds:

Personally, I think threatening someone with criminal prosecution for the political views they might express is quite “hateful.” So, too, is anointing oneself the arbiter of what is and is not sufficiently “civilized discussion” to the point of using the force of criminal law to enforce it. If I were administering Canada’s intrinsically subjective “hate speech” laws (and I never would), I’d consider prosecuting Provost Houle for this letter. The hubris required to believe that you can declare certain views so objectively hateful that they should be criminalized is astronomical; in so many eras, views that were most scorned by majorities ended up emerging as truth.

For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes, will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them, and will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered. Who would ever want to empower officious technocrats to issue warnings along the lines of: be forewarned: if you express certain political views, you may be committing a crime; guide and restrict yourself accordingly? I obviously devote a substantial amount of my time and energy to critiquing the actions of the U.S. Government, but the robust free speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment and largely protected by American courts continues to be one of the best features of American political culture.

I could not agree more. And it’s incredible to me that so many people who fancy themselves liberals and progressives, who otherwise spend so much of their time objecting to the government using its authority to squash minority viewpoints and undermine our freedom, suddenly want to give government even more authority to police not our actions but our beliefs and our words.

There is a big split on the left on this issue. The civil libertarian left is consistent in opposing such intrusions on our freedom and are as zealous in defending the rights of those whose views inflame as we are in defending their own speech. The post-modernist left, which believes that every law is about disparities in power instead of principle, want to use the power of government to squelch the expression of opinions they don’t like — and they somehow believe that such laws will only be used on their behalf, not against them.

But as Greenwald points out, such laws in Canada have also been used to keep out the British anti-war leftist George Galloway (just as the US has used similar laws go keep out Muslim scholars with heretical opinions).

I know that some of my readers disagree with me on this and think such laws are fine. That’s okay by me. But I’m right and you’re wrong — and yes, it really is that simple.