Freedom silenced

Something in our nation’s capital dealt a sobering blow this week to the prized freedoms we as Canadians take for granted. Something undemocratic. Something un-Canadian. Something wholly indefensible.

Something in our nation’s capital dealt a sobering blow this week to the prized freedoms we as Canadians take for granted. Something undemocratic. Something un-Canadian. Something wholly indefensible.

American right-wing antagonist Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at the University of Ottawa on Tuesday evening, when her venue was swarmed by hundreds of screaming protesters waving placards and shouting epithets.

A spokesperson for the event said that about 2,000 “threatening” students posed a security risk to the controversial commentator, who was advised by police to cancel her address.

In a Washington Times interview, Coulter said she’s given nearly 200 college speeches, but has never before been “completely shut down.”

“It’s at the absolute bush league, bottom of the barrel schools that you get the worst treatment, and yet and still, I’ve never seen this before,” she said. “I go to the best schools, Harvard, the Ivy League, and those kids are too intellectually proud to threaten speakers.”

Coulter is a best-selling author and syndicated columnist, widely known for her outrageous, inflammatory rhetoric. She’s hailed as a leader in the “angry American right-wing,” together with such noted personalities as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly.

Coulter’s detractors celebrated her departure that evening with chants of “Nananana, nananana, Goodbye Ann Coulter.”

“I was just worried that things were going to be said about certain groups of people that were going to make them feel very unsafe and very uncomfortable and we promise our students here at the University of Ottawa a safe, positive space,” one protester later commented.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Just think about the ridiculous irony this scenario evokes. They don’t want Coulter to say anything that would make someone feel unsafe, but it’s OK to make Coulter (and her audience, event organizers, security, police and bystanders) feel unsafe, since they really believe their cause is just.

Are you kidding me? What has become of our once-proud tradition of open political discourse in a free and democratic society?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all people within our borders freedom of thought, belief, opinion, expression and peaceful assembly, among other things.

This week’s hullabaloo was certainly less than peaceful, and calls into question the state of free speech in this country, when threats of violence and intimidation can silence a political forum — on a university campus, no less!

Which adds another bizarre twist to the story.

University of Ottawa academic vice-president, Francois Houle, had sent Coulter an email-warning prior to her arrival, cautioning her to weigh her words carefully, lest she face criminal charges for promoting hatred in Canada.

Canadian conservative lawyer and activist, Ezra Levant (who was scheduled to introduce Ms. Coulter at her Ottawa appearance), called this a “veiled threat,” which emboldened students to derail the event.

Civil libertarians have denounced the University’s treatment of Coulter, stating that it’s inappropriate for an educational institution to be telling people to watch their words.

“It could be interpreted as an attempt to curtail speech,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to warn speakers. Regardless of how bigoted and terrible a speaker she is, she’s entitled to freedom of expression and Canadians have a right to hear her views.”

Bingo. I mean, let’s get real here.

Part of Ann Coulter’s shtick is to be mean-spirited, nasty and offensive in her expressions. We don’t have to like it, but it’s absolutely part of the American shock-value media that’s made her a sought-after celebrity.

She defends her nasty tone as political satire employed to invoke change, and maintains it’s a popular draw for audiences. “They wouldn’t be bringing me in here for a speech if I never told a joke, if I never used satire.”

Yeah, Ann Coulter can definitely be hard to stomach, but if you don’t like what she says, then don’t listen. Dismiss, ignore or counter her, but don’t threaten violence to silence her. That’s how Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein maintained the oppressive regimes we abhor in this country.

Students at our nation’s capital crossed a line this week. One that should never have been crossed. That it be not crossed again should be the hope of every freedom-loving Canadian from sea to shining sea.

Vesna Higham, who holds a law degree, is a former Red Deer city councillor.

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