When American right-wing maven Ann Coulter was shut down in Canada, she resorted to type—she went feral—but the whole incident brings in to focus the fine line between free speech and hate speech

Ann Coulter is one of those right-wing American protagonists most people would not invite into their own home, but there is something fascinating about someone who gets off on her own capacity to be so consistently arrogant, nasty and offensive.

And so, when protesters shut down her speech to the University of Ottawa last night, Coulter’s trade mark razor sharp tongue was ready for action. She went feral. Trouble is, those who pulled the welcome mat from the university only added to her platform. Free speech, perhaps unfortunately, includes the verbiage of the far right, as well as the far left.

Shutting out Coulter gave her more of the attention she so obviously craves…and it managed to combine two of her favourite targets, Muslims and Canadians.

The anti-Coulter focus followed her rantings earlier this week when at the University of Western Ontario she claimed all terrorists are Muslims and they shouldn’t be allowed to fly. When a Muslim student asked her about such comments Coulter told the student if she didn’t have a flying carpet she should take a camel.

On Planet Coulter that little treasure is described as satire. In the real world it is of course ignorant, racist and offensive.

Surprise, surprise it didn’t go down very well in a university environment, let alone a Canadian university environment, and students at the next destination on Coulter’s speaking tour—Ottawa University—decided to block a repeat performance.

Right move because Coulter really doesn’t merit the attention; wrong move because universities should be able to tolerate bigots, even if it sticks in the academic craw. After all there is precious little academia involved in the modus operandi of Coulter and her ilk at Fox News who make millions out of the poor suckers who take seriously their deliberate fear mongering—particularly of Arabs and terrorism. She whips up as her stock and trade blatant racism and ices it all with such arrogance that she is a particularly unattractive package.

Canadians, like Kiwis, live to some extent in the shadows of their larger neighbours. Unfortunately perhaps for Canada, it is physically attached. Coulter seems to be worried about that more than most.

In the past she has openly despised French Canadians, because they speak French, but she’s very happy to acknowledge as neighbours the English speaking Canadians, the cowboys and the right wingers, and she believes the US should take over the ski fields and other things of use that Canada has.

She believes the worst Americans go north to help the Canadian population, and by ‘worst’ she means those who are “draft dodgers” or have refused to fight in Iraq.

She believes Canada is “lucky” to be “allowed” on the same continent as America, and on a clip that was once widely available electronically she told Canadians they were “lucky we (America) didn’t just roll over one night and crush them”.

I know that says more about Coulter’s bed partners than we would really want to know, but truly you could not make up this stuff.

So back to the universities of Canada….

Once denied her speaking platform, this woman scorned is to be avoided.

The Calgary Herald reported her reaction was of course to belittle the University of Ottawa and, by implication, the low level of intelligence required to be accepted there. Tempting to add Coulter to the list of those refused given she didn’t get actually get through the doors either.

Coulter of course resorted, as she tends to do, to reference to her Ivy League status and proclaim that she never had any difficulty with the Ivy League schools listening to her dissertation on free speech, political correctness and the like.

Even the “stupidest American university” hadn’t actually stopped her from speaking.

She referred to the U of O as a “bush league school”. Note that is ‘bush’ with a small ‘b’, which should be a relief to all Canadian universities.

Coulter does not have the mortgage on spite, but surely she should be permitted to be part of the debate, whatever that may be.

By avoiding just the sort of big spectacle of Coulter being banned denies oxygen to her deliberately controversial stance. She may well believe some of the stuff she says. She may not. But by shutting her down she claims the “free speech” moral high ground.

By letting her speak she is better than anyone at making herself look ridiculous to all but those who believe America is indeed the sacred empire to which we should all be grateful for our existence, Obama is evil and not even an American, and gays and the mainstream media are fair game for attack and ridicule. Let her go.

If you truly despise someone like Coulter don’t attend her speeches.

If you have time for a good laugh, google Coulter.

Comments (24)

by Andrew Geddis on March 25, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Jane,

It is the classic liberal quandry, isn't it? How far must one go to tolerate the expression of ideas that you find hateful? And in particular, what obligations does a University have to provide a forum for a speaker to engage in abusive language towards her audience:

"When a Muslim student asked her about such comments Coulter told the student if she didn’t have a flying carpet she should take a camel."

There's no way I would allow such expression in a class I teach at Otago - why should a guest speaker have latitude to say it? It's all very well to say "if you don't like her speech, don't go listen" ... the prior question is "why ought an academic institution permit her to say this under its auspices?"

by Peter Martin on March 25, 2010
Peter Martin

It appears that it wasn't the University that cancelled Coulter : 'Last night, the organizers themselves decided at 7:50 p.m. to cancel the event and so informed the University’s Protection Services staff on site.'

http://www.alumninews.uottawa.ca/alumni/View.aspx?id=195828&q=194726803&...

by Andrew Geddis on March 25, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Accepted, Peter.

But the point remains - why shouldn't students/members of the University community threaten to disrupt her speech, thus causing the organisers to pull the plug? The answer would be something like, "because she has a right to speak and the University ought to be a place that fosters that sort of free speech environment". Which brings us back to the question ... should someone like Coulter be a guest in a University context?

by Graeme Edgeler on March 25, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

"why ought an academic institution permit her to say this under its auspices?"

Because as a public institution bound by the Bill of Rights Act your university is legally required to promote the "freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form"?

Because academic institutions are the last places at which we should be discouraging or prohibiting the dissemination of unpopular ideas?

Because in a society in which racism is one of the great taboos, you've an obligation to critique (or at least allow criticism of) the generally accepted view that it has no place?

Because acquiesing to public pressure or protests about the right of someone to speak just sends a really bad message - if you're loud enough and organised enough, we're prepared to stop public debate?

Because inviting someone to speak, having them come to your country to do it, and then cancelling on them shortly before they're to speak when you knew exactly what they were like before you invited them is more than a little rude?

Because, when they came for the Coulters...

=)

by Andrew Geddis on March 25, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Graeme,

Of course, we all know the real BoRA question is whether "she reacts in an obnoxious, rude and personally demeaning way towards those who question her" is a "demonstrably justified" reason to restrict her freedom of expression (i.e. to exclude her from speaking in a University setting). This then requires some sort of notion about what form of expression is/is not acceptable in an academic setting ... you don't run lectures like you do political rallies, you don't let those speaking under your institutional mantle away with abusive behaviour.

Or, to put it another way, if Coulter wants to take advantage of the Universities' institutionalised tolerance towards unpopular ideas, shouldn't she have an obligation to conform to its institutionalised forms of argument and debate (i.e. she can say unpopular and controversial things, but she can't personally attack those who took the time to come and listen/question her on them).

by Eleanor Black on March 25, 2010
Eleanor Black

It seems to me that since Coulter was simply a guest at the uni (ie. they hadn't hired the crazy coon to teach, which would require her to to fall in line with university standards and act in a more respectful and adult manner than she usually does) then she should be accorded the courtesy of being heard out. If she is obnoxiously rude to members of the audience (ie. the flying carpet comment), then they have a right to respond accordingly (ie. jeer at her).

But I do understand why people loathe this woman because she is truly vile. That she has the position she does in American culture worries me. As does the work of that nutty Glenn Beck on Fox. However, the more they bellow at us, the more chances they have to trip up and cause even their loyal followers to go "What the...?" Right?

by Andrew Geddis on March 25, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Eleanor,

"If she is obnoxiously rude to members of the audience (ie. the flying carpet comment), then they have a right to respond accordingly (ie. jeer at her)."

What about students/staff at the next University on her tour ... do they have a right to mass outside the venue and express their displeasure by chanting loudly with the aim of drowning out her talk?

That's the tricky question!

by Eleanor Black on March 25, 2010
Eleanor Black

Sure, they can do that. I'm not sure it reflects all that well on them though.

by Andrew Geddis on March 26, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Eleanor,

Seems that The Globe and Mail is of a different opinion:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/a-university-fai...

by stuart munro on March 26, 2010
stuart munro

There are limits even on the rights to free speech - the real trick is discretion in applying it.

Should Otago contrive to invite Brian Tamaki or Hone Harawira simply because they would be contraversial? There is no obligation.

There is never a shortage of fools, the trick is to find intelligent differences of opinion.

by Graeme Edgeler on March 26, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

Should Otago contrive to invite Brian Tamaki or Hone Harawira simply because they would be contraversial? There is no obligation.

No obligation, but if Hone were invited, should his invitation be rescinded because a Michael-Laws incited talkback mob yelled loudly enough?

by stuart munro on March 26, 2010
stuart munro

Your question gets tricky Graeme, in the land between could and should.

Let us leave out Mr Laws for the moment.

Should his invitation be rescinded depends a bit on the level of response asking that he not be invited. If respondents were unanamous, and represented the whole institution, I think his invitation should indeed be rescinded.

It is more the 'could his invitation be rescinded' that fits in the realm of discretion. I think that it could, and that his freedom of speech would not in fact be curtailed, only his use of the venue. He could speak to his hearts content in nearby public space - the museum reserve, for instance.

The issue would be whether the some public good prevailed over the airing of his opinion. In some instances, with either of these two gentlemen, keeping the peace might be reason enough.

by David Beatson on March 26, 2010
David Beatson

Andrew, I didn't realise that today's students need to be so insulated from exposure to bigotry. How do they learn to deal with it when they leave the protective environment you are creating? What happens when they suddenly confront the many "Coulters" who lurk out there in the real world, where you can't ignore them, gag them, or howl them down?

by Andrew Geddis on March 26, 2010
Andrew Geddis

David,

You misunderstand me. It's not Coulter's ideas I think should be excluded from the umbrella of a University's sanction, but her method of expressing them. Reacting to questions in a way that personally insults the asker is antithetical to a Unversity's "mission", and makes her unsuitable as a speaker on campus. As compared to, say, Richard Dawkins - who is just as "controversial" in much of what he argues, but doesn't treat a lecture room like it is an episode of "Fox & Friends".

And, yes, I think a University's mission is not to prepare students for the "real world" that they will enter into post-graduation. That's because Universities are institutions that exist to educate students in the various academic disciplines that its faculty specialise in - which is why they teach subjects like ancient Greek and theoretical physics, and do so in a way that demands certain modes of discourse.

If you really want Unversities to have the job of preparing students for the "real world", then I guess we'll have to have classes in how to stab your co-workers in the back, as well as invite people who talk loudly on cellphones in cafes give public demonstrations for the students. Such life lessons are likely to be far more practically useful than anything I'll teach to a 19 year old in Public Law!

by Pete Fowler on March 28, 2010
Pete Fowler

I can understand why Ms. Coulter hates French Canadians.  People who talk foreign langwidges are stupid.  If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me.

by Mr Magoo on March 29, 2010
Mr Magoo

I don't understand what the problem is here?

  1. Coulter was invited to peak as a right wing pundit that grabs headlines. Her MO is well known.
  2. University agreed and booked her even though most would find her ridiculous and obnoxious.
  3. Other people executed their right to free speech and protested the event.
  4. Organizers themselves decided to cancel because of the protest and the uni complied.
  5. End of story.

Coulter has as much "right" to speak as anyone else.  Whether you consider her to have any academic worth is really up to the organisers and perhaps the university who spend resources hosting this. (obviously the uni is not a stomping ground for anyone with an opinion who wants to share)

Coulter did not do anything she was not already well known for.

If enough people thought it relevant enough to invite and attend then I say that in of itself shows that it was a worthwhile event. I assume that most of the people attending just wanted to heckle, but that is how she makes her money - by being hated by many and thus loved by extremists.

And this includes insulting questioners. If that is how she chooses to deliver her point and represent herself then so be it. I find great worth in having impressionable minds exposed to the vitriol of the right wing extreme. Better than keeping it covered up!

Another example would be the punk rocker GG Allin (deceased) who would recite poetry, strip naked and throw his feces and attack people at random until he was thrown out.

Apart from the severe health hazard and assault he was quite easily an artistic figure of some merit to some people. Extremism was his calling card and his antics were well known. And he used to be the source of much fecal matter.

The parallels between the two are endless.

by Mr Magoo on March 29, 2010
Mr Magoo

You misunderstand me. It's not Coulter's ideas I think should be excluded from the umbrella of a University's sanction, but her method of expressing them.

PS: And I am not misunderstanding them. You are trying to suggest that guest speakers should adhere to standards arbitrarily set down by the university as if they work there or represented the university.

I just don't agree. This is a form of censorship and should be avoided in the university environment at all costs.

Staff, yes. Guest speakers, no.

 

by Andrew Geddis on March 29, 2010
Andrew Geddis

"Another example would be the punk rocker GG Allin (deceased) who would recite poetry, strip naked and throw his feces and attack people at random until he was thrown out."

Excellent good for the Fringe Festival, or some dank cellar bar run by anarcho-syndacalists. But why should he (or anyone else) expect a University to want him "speaking" at it?

This isn't a question of "should such activities be allowed?" full stop. It's a question of whether Universities should feel obligated/required/mandated to allow such activities under its auspices (in particular, by permitting such provocateurs to be invited guests speaking under its name/logo). And to simply throw up the argument "it's free speech!" misses the whole point - what can/can't be said at a University is bounded by what the University is there to do. Which isn't simply to let anyone say whatever they want, however they want ... it's to educate students in the relevant disciplines it includes on its syllabus, to provide a basis for research within those disciplines, and to disseminate that research to the wider community (of fellow scholars and lay people). All of which occurs in a particular way - that's why they are called "disciplines". So they aren't standards "arbitrarily" laid down ... they are the practices that define what the University is and does.

If you want a place where "anything goes" - that's completely fine. (I think you'll find, however, that such a place is a mirage ... how do you feel about the on-stage torture and murder of babies as a symbolic protest against mining in National Parks? Or does this fall outside your "arbitrarily imposed" limits on expressive conduct?) But please don't call such a place a University. Try "blogsite". Or "internet".

by Mr Magoo on March 29, 2010
Mr Magoo

And I stated explicitly in my post that it is totally up to the people spending the resources (including the university) whether they choose host her or not. And I also pointed out that her views and method of delivery were widely known so one cannot say they were being "ambushed".

At no point did I say that anyone should be allowed to speak. In fact I think I said the opposite:

(obviously the uni is not a stomping ground for anyone with an opinion who wants to share)

I also never used the free speech argument to justify any of this. Free speech has absolutely nothing to do with my argument which is based on the invitation to share ideas and not the right to speak whatever comes through your noodle aloud in public.

So to be honest a very unfair straw man there.

My point is that they did invite her and thus that in of itself was enough to warrant her a valid speaker. Whether her only purpose is to stimulate debate in complete opposition to what she was saying is besides the point. The university does not own her viewpoint anymore than you "own" mine on this blog. You are hosting it.

Expecting invited speakers to adhere to some arbitrary set of rules is akin to censorship and should be avoided at all costs in the university environment. And they are arbitrary, because they would be invented by some committee which most likely populated with people who have little to do with the subject in question at a certain point in time. They would also vary from university to university.

Making the argument that what these people say is tied to the university name such that it is responsible for it in a sort of "marketing image" sense is folly and I can understand how such would result in your line of reasoning. The university is a place where diverse and sometimes controversial viewpoints are raised. Trying to take responsibility for all of them and then restricting them based on this is just not sensible.

Again, this does not mean that you have to take everyone that comes along and you certainly don't have to invite them back. That is censorship also but not the sort we are talking about.

Imagine inviting Noam Chomsky to speak on foreign affairs and then telling him that he is not allowed to use any "anti-American" references for a very loose definition of such because our charter had some limp babble about a positive effect on the country or some rubbish. This is not even an outlandish example given his stance on Vietnam and many other topics during the 60's and 70's and the political climate at the time. Of course many places, including universities, would never allow him to speak for that reason.

But again. It IS up to those spending the time and resources to host the speaker to decide who they want. I just do not believe in any form of gagging in academia however. Critique and debate by ones peers are the method of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Not gag orders.

PS: The example of GG Allin was more for comedy and the most extreme example I could think of. In that case I believe the university WAS ambushed, although the student organizers were not. Sorry if this clouded things.

 

by Andrew Geddis on March 29, 2010
Andrew Geddis

We're getting a bit tangled up here. I agree the Canadian Universities can't exactly claim to be surprised by Coulter's comments ... which is exactly why I think they shouldn't have invited her in the first place. And when she gives an example of her inability to engage in respectful dialogue whilst in Canada ("get on a camel"), they should have realise their error and pulled the plug on her.

(As you note, though, Ottowa University didn't disinvite her - she called her talk off herself, and gave herself a huge publicity bump in the process.)

But even having invited her doesn't then mean she is entitled to deliver her message in whatever form she chooses (otherwise she's a victim of an "arbitrary set of rules"). To mirror your GG Allin example, if Ms Coulter chose to deliver her message by dressing up as in a Burqua and shooting an AK47 into the audience, I assume you'd accept the University's right to step in to curb her expression at that point?

I guess my only remaining question to you would be, do you think Coulter is a suitable person to speak on a University campus as its guest (and my reference to a "allow[ing] such activities under its auspices" isn't about branding, but rather what sort of speakers a University ought to regard as advancing its mission)? 'Cause I don't - I think her entire approach to discussing ideas is antithetical to what Universities should be about.

by Mr Magoo on March 30, 2010
Mr Magoo

If she did those things she would be breaking the law. Much like if she incited the audience to do similar. With Coulter this is a fine line because from what I have heard her literature borders on (or crosses) into the realm of true hate speech. (i.e. as opposed to good old fashioned bigotry) This would also be subject to the laws of the land and she has 'survived' so far so I will naively assume that she has not broken them.

I think Coulter's viewpoint and delivery are instructive regardless of their own merit - even just as a popular example of what she represents. She also stimulates thought, passion and debate in a way a more typical speaker could not. And sometimes the best way to counter people of her ilk is to just let them speak.

I cannot speak for the university but I imagine the reason for allowing it may have been something along these lines.

Whether they SHOULD have hosted her or what their aims were I cannot say. I can only assume they discussed it to some degree.

But look what did happen? A protest against the talk. People expressing their viewpoints strongly. Much debate including on this forum.

Wow. What a powerful lesson without her even getting to speak.

by Andrew Geddis on March 30, 2010
Andrew Geddis

But why is "you may express yourself in a way that does not break the law" not an "arbitrary set of rules" imposed upon a speaker? It takes the question back a step - why (and when) should the law prohibit certain forms of expression? And also remember - this issue kicked off because Ottawa University wrote to Coulter and reminded her that Canada had hate speech laws that she was expected to abide by ... which she immediately decried as a preemptive attempt to censor her expression through the selective application of those laws. So I don't think you can draw the line as to what is/isn't acceptable speech simply in terms of what is/isn't legal.

Furthermore, I can't help but feel you are evading the central point here - should the University have regarded Coulter as an appropriate speaking guest? For what value really was gained by her non-appearance at Ottawa? Or, does the creation of heat really produce light?

by Mr Magoo on March 30, 2010
Mr Magoo

I am not evading the point, just making a circular argument. :) 'They' felt she was a worthy speaker and with some merit and thus I would say that is the qualification or worth.

Personally I don't read or listen to anything she has to say intentionally. (Although she does turn up in a number of amusing videos at times.) If I ran a course on propaganda, politics or media studies then I very well may think that she was. (I would probably want to study video rather than have her in person - but that is me) My opinion in this matter is of no value.

I probably would have attended however!

Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and their like are quite the study in propaganda and misinformation. Their parallels in style, content and choice of subject to other very well known masters of this art have been commented on. (no I wont name them because it is a deadly sin on forums)

The law is the law until it is changed. Hate speech laws always make me a little nervous because of the capacity for abuse. But then many laws can be (and have been) abused so this is not unique. Basically they are censorship pure and simple. Informing her of the law is not big a deal - they did not make it. And it is also a good indication they knew what she was and had her speaking anyway.

A recent NZ case was the British "holocaust denier" in 2004. Would you let him speak? Why (not)? What is different?

NB: Inciting violence is different because the result is a physical and criminal act. (similar in concept to conspiracy) I have not heard her go that far, but then I don't read/watch her.

The sort of rules you are talking about are not founded in the public good, but in university image and the judgement of worth by those not specifically involved. I would say this is almost never a good idea.

The creation of heat (ignoring the thermodynamic laws) is the creation of energy. What it is used for is not always predictable (even if fundamentally deterministic) and this is what makes life interesting.

 

by Mr Magoo on March 30, 2010
Mr Magoo

PS: Your example with the Burka and AK-47 would also have been illegal.

With a guest speaker there is always the danger that you don't get what you were expecting. No different to a guest scientist talking on his new theory and then you find he falsified his results. Or he talks mostly about another theory or just advertises his new book. Or perhaps he just is a really, terrible speaker and everyone leaves before the end.

As I said, you are under no obligation to let them speak in the first place or the second and subsequent places either.

In this case the assumption is that Coulter was going to speak as she speaks and they knew this.

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