Ann Coulter is a vicious and mean-spirited demagogue and I’m ashamed that I share more DNA with her than chimpanzees or bonobos. She represents the worst kind of reactionary partisanship and should be condemned by all quarters in the spirit of basic decency. That being said, however, I don’t believe a government should have any role in prohibiting her speech, regardless of how offensive it is. And it’s pretty offensive. Just after the Sept. 11 attacks Coulter wrote, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” This got her fired from the column she wrote at the conservative magazine The National Review. She later said that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed on airplanes but should take “flying carpets” instead. Now she’s stated these ugly and racist remarks directly to a 17-year-old Muslim student, Fatima Al-Dhaher, during Coulter’s recent visit to Western Ontario University:
“As a 17-year-old student of this university, Muslim, should I be converted to Christianity? Second of all, since I don’t have a magic carpet, what other modes do you suggest,” Al-Dhaher said to loud and sustained applause. . .
To shouts of “Answer the question,” Coulter finally replied “What mode of transportation? Take a camel.”
However, while all decent citizens should condemn these comments (as well as all racist, homophobic, sexist, and anti-semitic remarks) there are significant concerns when the state begins deciding which views should be voiced and which shouldn’t.
In a letter written by Francois Houle, Vice-President Academic and Provost at the University of Ottawa, Coulter was warned that she could be arrested if she wasn’t careful:
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.
This can only be constituted as a threat. While Provost Houle is welcome to disagree with Coulter’s views, what this letter represents is an abuse of authority. I’m not alone in these concerns. Constitutional lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald as well as reknowned dissident Noam Chomsky have likewise aired their concerns on this point. At his blog Greenwald writes:
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?
Any effort to criminalize speech is effectively criminalizing dissent. At one time it was illegal to speak publicly about birth control (Emma Goldman was arrested more than a dozen times for giving speeches on the topic), women were arrested for picketing the White House demanding white women’s suffrage, and police officers have beaten African-American and white protesters for riding buses together across state lines. Criminalizing free speech most often works to the detriment of marginalized groups and is in the benefit of the powerful. During the Olympics it was illegal for Canadians to express their disagreement with their government by holding signs denigrating the Olympic symbol, even if those signs were inside their home. Once the state gets involved in legislating opinions we are in slippery slope territory.
Coulter is a shock jock and a mere flash in the pan of our public discourse. She will be forgotten about and the world will be better for it. But we should be careful about the desire to criminalize views that we disagree with, because those remain long after the person they were meant to protect us from. This, of course, says nothing about the rights of others to protest forums where those views are being voiced. This is precisely what student groups did at the University of Ottawa. Their protest was vocal but peaceful. In the end Coulter’s bodyguard decided it was “unsafe” for her and the event was cancelled. The students shut down the forum, as did students in North Carolina last year when the vitriolic Tom Tancredo was scheduled to speak. Good for them. They just need to realize, of course, that others have the same rights they do and conservative groups are taking notes on their tactics.