Free Speech. What a Concept!

U of Calgary gets it. But the letter from Ottawa's provost to Ann Coulter was a remarkable clanger, says Rex.

Read the transcript of this Point of View

Rex Murphy Point of View

March 25, 2010


If the University of Ottawa does not have a sideline promoting and generating publicity for American conservative speakers, may I suggest it seriously consider getting into the business. 

Ann Coulter was probably fairly well known to political types in Canada. But it’s thanks to the incident at University of Ottawa on Tuesday night, and in particular, to a letter sent by the University’s busy Provost, Francois Houle, that for the last two days she’s flared in the news, was bigger than Question Period, and even drowned out the "stepping forward" of a 15th mistress in Tiger Wood’s ever swelling queue of carnal dependents.

The Provost’s letter to Coulter was really quite astonishing, blazingly smug, suggesting that she "educate" herself on "what is acceptable in Canada" and that she do so "in advance of her visit" to our delightful nation". He tells her (why is this man not on a Human Rights Commission?)  "that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on freedom of expression", that "promoting hatred" could lead to "criminal charges", and "asking" her "while on (his) campus" to "weigh (her) words with civility and respect."

I’m going to make a really mad guess here and say, first off, Mr. Houle is probably not Ann Coulter’s biggest fan.  That doesn’t make him remarkable.  But that, as a Vice President and a Provost of a major Canadian university, he sends off such a letter to a campus speaker, does.  The most obvious question that comes to mind is:  Is this the only letter like this that he has ever sent?  University of Ottawa has had many speakers, and does the Provost send presumptuous and implicitly threatening letters to all of them?  My second mad guess is that he doesn’t.  Last guess:  the letter to Coulter is the only one he’s sent. 

There’s a chance, too, that Mr. Houle’s ‘intervention’ probably added to the excitements that ended with Coulter’s appearance being cancelled, with her streaking to the top of the headlines, and a bigger audience in Calgary tonight.

What is really disappointing is that the letter came from an officer of a university, and that underneath its Uriah Heap-ish tones, there is so little understanding of free speech and debate.

It’s sad.  A university is the place when the real value of free speech should be fully understood and respected. Indeed, it is the very place where young people are taught, or should be, its history, its philosophic underpinnings, its cardinal place in our democracy. Taught too, emphatically, that free speech isn’t (lord how obvious this is) for people and thoughts you already like, or are comfortable with. It isn’t meant to be an applause echo for what you already believe.

How much better that University of Calgary understands these concepts:  Its Provost said:  "Our concern is to ensure this event goes on smoothly and that she receives the same respect for her opinions as everybody else would expect to receive for theirs."

What a concept:  A beacon of logic, tolerance and intelligence.

For the National, I’m Rex Murphy.