Coulter’s cancelled talk a powerful draw

March 25th, 2010 by

www.nationalpost.com – One incontrovertible lesson to come from Ann Coulter’s aborted speech in Ottawa Tuesday night, and indeed from the national reaction to her Canadian speaking tour this week, is that the U.S. pundit didn’t even have to open her mouth to ignite a controversy about freedom of speech in Canada.

Warned by campus authorities to censor herself or face the full brunt of Canada’s speech laws before she even arrived; subjected to fairly intense on-campus protests with students calling her hateful and demanding she not be allowed to speak; the talk was cancelled, citing security concerns.

Ms. Coulter had come to talk about political correctness and freedom of speech; about the double standard applied between conservatives and liberals. She made a most powerful statement without even showing up.

The entire spectacle could not have been better scripted to serve Ms. Coulter’s cause had she planned it herself. The University of Calgary, where she will speak tonight, announced yesterday it was relocating her talk to a larger venue, with attendance having doubled since Monday (it will beef up security, too, but insists she’s free to speak her mind).

In an interview with the National Post after the incident at the University of Ottawa, Ms. Coulter seemed every bit as convivial and unflappable as she does whenever she appears, as she does with considerable frequency, on U.S. television political panels — the happy arch-conservative warrior who drives earnest left-wingers mad. She cracked jokes at every turn.

Still, Ms. Coulter insisted, she was serious about her promise to see University of Ottawa provost Francois Houle — whose name, sounding like “hole,” she had great fun modifying — charged by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, for promoting hatred against her, a white, Christian, female, conservative, since she’s certain no left-wing speakers have been similarly threatened.

“All I thought about” after the cancellation, Ms. Coulter said, “was how much this helps my complaint with the human rights commission.”

Ms. Coulter says human rights commissions are “horses–t” because of their silencing of free speech, but at the very least her own case against Mr. Houle, she says, “drives the point home.”

It was Mr. Houle who wrote in advance of the planned speech, warning, “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.”

How much responsibility Mr. Houle bears for the absurdity that followed it — from book-burning protesters to Ms. Coulter’s HRC parody play — remains a matter of debate. The university issued a statement yesterday insisting it was Ms. Coulter’s side who called things off and the school has “always promoted and defended freedom of expression” — though they didn’t specify whether they shared Mr. Houle’s narrow interpretation of that term.

Organizers said there were threats made on Facebook; the website features a comment from some angry woman who “want[s] to throw rotten veggies and eggs at her evil barbie mask,” and another fellow asking, “Can’t we just tar and feather her?”

Whether Mr. Houle ever had legitimate cause for concern is another matter of dispute. Ms. Coulter has said many offensive things, perhaps, says Barry Cooper, a University of Calgary political scientist, but she has hardly spread “hate” in any criminal sense (her regular TV appearances and 14 national bestsellers suggest as much). She pushes buttons, and raises hackles — baldly mocking Muslim extremists, say, rather than politely indulging in pro-multicultural banalities– but this, Mr. Cooper says, is a noble patriotic tradition. Satirists like “Ann Coulter and Lenny Bruce, they’re reinforcing their first amendment rights, reinforcing the importance of the U.S. Constitution,” he said. When freedoms fall into disuse, they suffer neglect, as he suspects has happened in Canada. Ms. Coulter prefers comparing herself to Voltaire: Her outrageous humour, she says, is potent; deliver the same message in prose, “and everyone falls asleep.”

Burnishing the image of Ann Coulter as a teller of dangerous truths may not have been quite the goal of Mr. Houle and the U of O mob, but they have unquestionably done it. In the U.S. media, their school, and this country, have become in the past 48 hours an object of scorn and ridicule, on all sides of the political spectrum, while Ms. Coulter has been cast a free-speech hero. No wonder she seems so cheerful.

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THE FALLOUT

Americans are following Ann Coulter’s controversial tour of Canada with glee. Herein, a sample of how they view Canada’s reaction to the right-wing tempest:

Vanity Fair “Ann Coulter is afraid of Canadians”

Esquire “Way to go, Canada! You’ve achieved the nearly impossible, and made Ann Coulter a nearly sympathetic figure.” “You know, it’s funny: If you hadn’t as a country lost your sh–last night, and the corrosive harridan had been allowed to freely speak at the academic institution which invited her to speak, you would have in turn been allowed to mock her and laugh at her and put her ‘ideas’ in the garbage where they belong.”

Newsweek on Francois Houle’s letter to Coulter “… lest the administrator’s words be read as abrupt or abrasive, he signed it with typical Canadian congeniality…”

Glenn Greenwald in Salon “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.”

National Post

THE SCENE

Scene at the University of Ottawa in advance of Ann Coulter’s aborted speech.

- The doors to Ann Coulter’s speech at Marion Hall were supposed to open Tuesday at 7 p.m. Come 7:30, there were roughly 2,000 people waiting outside.

- Protesters chanted “Coulter go home,” and “hate speech has got to go.” Some wore pins reading “No Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, Racism.”

- Outside, one group of girls started to prepare to burn a copy of Ms. Coulter’s book Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America, before one of them suggested “Let’s debate this” first. Someone else pulled a fire alarm, and several fire engines arrived to investigate.

- Organizers managed to get just over 100 registered guests into the auditorium before protesters so filled the hallway that the doors leading in could no longer be opened.

- Security staff reported that protesters had also “infiltrated” and were crowding the back door area that had been designated as Ms. Coulter’s private entrance to the auditorium.

- Word went out to the crowd: The event was cancelled.

Kevin Libin, National Post


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