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In Defence of Free Speech


Honourable senators, on March 23, a mob prevented Ann Coulter, a political provocateur, from speaking at the University of Ottawa. Their actions were explicitly encouraged and given prior sanction by the provost of the University, Mr. Francois Houle, who wrote a letter to Ms. Coulter before her arrival in Canada. The obsequious words of welcome that began the letter were suspiciously warm and completely disingenuous. It stated:

We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus . . . We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, . . .

After that, he should have written . . . except when we do not like what you have to say and how you say it.

After making clear for Ms. Coulter the differences between free speech in Canada and the United States, he basically accused her of trafficking in hate speech, which in Canada, and I quote his letter, "could in fact lead to criminal charges."

The letter closed with a line that could have come straight out of the re-education camps of Pol Pot's Cambodia: It stated:

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.

The mob took its cue from the provost. Their actions so physically intimidated the police that the guardians of free speech, the police, fearing for Ms. Coulter's safety, advised her against speaking. After the fact, the leadership of the university incredibly failed to support what, to me, is the very foundation of our academic institutions: Freedom of speech. University of Ottawa President Allan Rock, with his head firmly planted in the sand, gave a tepid response. He said:

We have a long history of hosting contentious and controversial speakers on our campus. Last night was no exception, as people gathered here to listen to and debate Ann Coulter's opinions . . .

In other words, Mr. Rock is saying that it was not the university that stopped Ms. Coulter from speaking. I remind senators that dictators use paramilitary groups to prevent free speech.

Prior restraint — regulating speech or expression before it occurs — is usually exercised through judicial or administrative regulations. At the University of Ottawa, the mob exercised prior restraint and the administration took cover behind it. The mob went so far as to prevent the speech itself — not the courts, not the law, but the mob, on the excuse of what Ms. Coulter might say. They prevented their fellow students from hearing her. Those students were there voluntarily to listen, debate and make up their own minds. They were prevented from doing so by that mob. They were prevented from taking her on in a debate, if they so chose.

That this took place at a university is all the more troubling. We depend on universities to promote the free exchange of ideas. We depend on them to teach our kids and future leaders about the value of free speech, its meaning and its origins. The University of Ottawa has yet to learn the lesson, it seems. How could they overlook some of the most elemental teachings of free speech, such as the following words on the subject by Justice Louis D. Brandeis who said:

If there be a time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

The taxpayers of Canada fund the University of Ottawa. These same taxpayers, ordinary Canadians or rather extraordinary Canadians, are willing to allow citizens to advocate the breakup of Canada, allow them to form political parties advocating such a breakup of the country, and allow them to run candidates for office, who, if elected, sit in our Parliament. This is free speech in Canada. The taxpayers of this country trust the administration and faculty of the University of Ottawa to teach these values to our young people. They have failed us. They have failed the parents of these people. They have failed the country.