What does it mean to say we uphold free speech in this country? Ann Coulter has certainly opened the door to some interesting debate.
She is part of a growing number of American shock-jock polemicists on both ends of the political spectrum (think Howard Stern) who make a lot of money by their foul-mouthed, over-the-top, vitriolic rants.
It’s her bread and butter — more entertainment shock value than issue-oriented debate. Her rhetoric is often peppered in shades of racism, nearly always offensive to a civil, grounded sensibility, but is it hate speech?
Some are quick to jump to that conclusion, but I disagree.
Personally, I can’t stomach Ann Coulter and her ilk. It’s astounding to me that people waste time and money on her demeaning antics.
But she certainly has the right in this country to her opinions and to express them — even in her branded obnoxious, provocative manner.
Let’s be clear about something: as repugnant and offensive as racism is, not all racist speech is hate speech. Very little in fact.
Hate speech in Canada is defined by a narrowly-delineated set of provisions found in the Criminal Code, in the federal Human Rights Act and other legislation, and in statutory provisions in each of the ten provinces and three territories.
The Criminal Code only prohibits hate propaganda (as opposed to mere expression), which is the only violation to carry potential incarceration sanctions. The mere expression of racist slur, however offensive, is not hate speech.
As the courts have interpreted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms since 1982, the concept of human rights infringement has evolved along with it. We used to picture Third World genocidal-type atrocities as human rights infringement. Now an off-colour, red-neckish comment can potentially trigger the same allegation.
We’ve become conditioned in this country to viewing any racist expression as hate speech, which is why the Coulter controversy is so raw in Canada.
Students in today’s Canadian universities have been taught their entire lives that discrimination is a crime punishable by incarceration under our hate speech laws, without really understanding the nuances behind those laws.
Over the years, this has commonly been interpreted by some to mean that we as Canadians have the right to be free from any kind of insult, upset or perturbation that might challenge our sometimes delicate sensibilities.
We’ve become zealots of political correctness to the nth degree.
When student protesters derailed Coulter’s speech at the University of Ottawa last week, the forces of intimidation won out over public inquiry, debate and the free exchange of ideas — the very ideals universities are obliged to protect.
History has taken quite a turn all right. Back in the ’60s, student protesters swarmed college campuses demanding free speech. Now they demand to suppress it.
The view that unpopular, or even repulsive, Coulter-esque opinions should not be expressed in public because they are dangerous has permeated our culture in an unhealthy way.
On a CBC radio phone-in show the other day, a highly agitated human-rights lawyer stated that Coulter should be banned from speaking in Canada, because she is a human-rights violator.
Another caller noted that if any Canadian spoke like Coulter, he’d be jailed. “Ms. Coulter has infringed on our right to be safe, secure and not discriminated against,” said the caller, adding that “Canadian universities should grow a backbone and get rid of this menace.”
Ann Coulter may be a menace, but she’s not a human-rights violator. Telling a young Muslim girl to ride away on her camel is brazen and insulting, but it’s not hate speech.
It is, for better or worse, the price we pay for the privilege of free speech in this country: accepting that some will use their freedom to say offensive, degrading things.
I for one am happy to pay the price.
Vesna Higham, who holds a law degree, is a former Red Deer city councillor.