Free speech includes the right to protest

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Conservative U.S. pundit Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at the University of Ottawa on March 23, but the event was cancelled before she even showed up. Organizers have tried to blame hundreds of student protesters, saying they infringed on her free speech rights.

But it wasn't students, the University of Ottawa or Ottawa police who cancelled Coulter's speech, as some reports claim. The event was cancelled by Ezra Levant, a self-styled "free speech" martyr who helped organize Coulter's three-city speaking tour in Canada.

Levant has tried to paint students as a violent mob that planned to assault Coulter. But there were no arrests at the protest and no reports of violence. Protesters may have expressed anger and outrage, but they remained peaceful, and never posed a threat to Coulter.

More importantly, students have every right to protest Coulter -- and were right to do so. Free speech includes the right to protest, especially on a university campus. By exercising their free speech rights, students do not undermine Coulter's.

There are lots of reasons to protest Coulter, whose speeches and columns attack Muslims, Arabs, immigrants, women, gays and other oppressed groups. Here's what she said about Muslims and Arabs in the wake of 9/11: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

She later wrote: "I think the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantánamo."

When Arab passengers were denied air travel because of racial profiling, Coulter told them to use "flying carpets" instead. During Coulter's appearance at the University of Western Ontario, Fatima Al-Dhaher, a 17-year old Muslim student in political science, challenged Coulter's racism, asking how Muslims like her should travel.

Coulter replied: "Take a camel."

Since her Ottawa gig was cancelled, Coulter claims that she is the victim of censorship. But Coulter doesn't defend the free speech of those whose views she opposes. On the Democrats, she has said: "They're always accusing us of repressing their speech. I say let's do it. Let's repress them. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of the First Amendment."

Like Coulter, many of her backers are "free speech" hypocrites. Levant was among the first commentators to back the Conservative government's ban on British MP George Galloway, and has remained silent on attempts to shut down Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), a series of educational events that take place annually on university campuses all over the world.

Coulter, Levant and other right-wing pundits argue that the left is attacking free speech, and that conservatives are being persecuted for their ideas. But there is no evidence to back these claims.

Coulter writes a syndicated column that runs in newspapers all over the US. She frequently appears on radio and TV talk shows, and has published a number of books, all widely available. The students who protested Coulter's gig don't have a fraction of that kind of media access.

In fact, Coulter dominated the airwaves in the days after her speech was cancelled, and it was her interpretation that has largely become the official version of events - even though much of it has been refuted. Students, on the other hand, have had to struggle to tell their side of the story, at the same time as fending off vicious attacks from Coulter and her backers, who have tried to characterize them as "thugs", "fascists", and "terrorists".

Unfortunately, some progressives have accepted Coulter's side of the story, and are portraying her as a "victim". One high-profile example is a public letter issued by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to Dr. François Houle, Vice-President Academic and Provost at the University of Ottawa. Houle had sent a private letter to Coulter in advance of her visit, explaining the difference between speech laws in Canada and the US. In light of Coulter's record attacking oppressed groups, Houle's concerns are legitimate, and his letter is hardly a threat.

Coulter claims that the letter was intended to incite a left-wing mob against her. But Houle's letter was private; it was Coulter who leaked it to the media and whipped her followers into a frenzy about it.

Sadly, CAUT has bought the line that Coulter's free speech was undermined. Despite how much she acts like one, Coulter is not a victim.

Most real attacks on free speech in Canada have been largely ignored, mainly because they have been led by the Conservatives and their allies. The most obvious example at the moment is the Conservatives' refusal to obey Parliament's request for the release of all files relating to Canadian involvement in the torture of Afghan detainees.

Other examples include the Conservatives' attack on anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists. Instead of engaging in a serious debate about the war in Afghanistan, or considering alternative points-of-view, the government has repeatedly attacked its opponents, smearing them in the media and undermining their credibility.

Richard Colvin, the career diplomat who raised objections about the treatment of Afghan detainees, was vilified by the Conservatives, and called a "traitor". New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton was dismissed as "Taliban Jack" for suggesting that all groups in Afghanistan should be involved in peace negotiations.

In February 2009, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney unilaterally cut all funding to the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) in response to its criticism of the government's support for Israel's war on Gaza. Kenney later cut all funding to KAIROS -- a human rights organization representing 11 of Canada's largest Christian churches -- because of its criticism of the Israeli occupation. Kenney's decision ended a 35-year relationship between KAIROS and the federal government, and has forced the group to cancel many of its humanitarian projects.

Shortly thereafter, the government cut all international aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which administers health and social programs for Palestinians in nine refugee camps -- suggesting that the organization is connected to terror groups.

In March 2009, Kenney banned Galloway from Canada, claiming that his humanitarian aid convoy to Gaza was evidence of his support for terrorism. A Kenney spokesperson defended the ban by saying that Galloway's opposition to the war in Afghanistan equalled support for the Taliban.

Kenney has also initiated what is called the "Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism" -- an unofficial inquiry into anti-Semitism in Canada. So far, the committee has resisted calling witnesses who are critical of Canadian foreign policy. On March 9, the Bloc Québécois quit the coalition in protest.

More recently, the government delayed issuing a visa to independent Palestinian MP Dr. Mustafa Barghouti who, like Coulter, was slated to speak in three cities in Canada. The delay forced the cancellation of Barghouti's tour.

On campus, students involved in Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) have also faced serious attacks of free speech. In late February, Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman (Thornhill) passed a motion in the Ontario Legislature condemning IAW, with the support of 30 MPPs. A similar motion was introduced by Conservative MP Tim Uppal (Edmonton -- Sherwood Park) in the House of Commons, but failed to win unanimous consent. Either way, federal cabinet ministers and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff issued their own statements condemning IAW.

In 2009, students involved in IAW faced poster bans -- which were enacted on three separate campuses -- and attempts by university administrators to manipulate room-booking rules to prevent Palestine solidarity clubs from meeting on campus.

Taken together, these cases show that the most sustained and serious attacks on free speech are coming from the Conservative government and its backers, not a few hundred students at the University of Ottawa.

The consequences of these attacks have been severe. But this should come as no surprise since government-led censorship relies on the full weight of the state and its access to mass media. The Conservatives have prevented their critics from entering Canada, denied funds to critical organizations, demonized individuals and organizations with whom they disagree and created a McCarthyite atmosphere that discourages free and open discourse -- especially on issues related to Afghanistan or Palestine and Israel.

Ironically, Levant claims that protesters have created a chilly climate at the University of Ottawa. But where was Levant in all these other cases? If anyone has created a chilly climate, it's the Conservatives.

The free speech debate in Canada will continue for some time, especially as the Conservatives ramp up their attacks on all those who oppose their agenda. But the best way to challenge these attacks is to mobilize against them.

It's also the best way to challenge hateful bigots like Coulter. Calling for a ban only plays into their hands, allowing them to portray themselves as "free speech" martyrs. It also creates a dangerous precedent since administrators and the state are all too ready to use bans against students or the left, as the above examples show.

Instead, activists should follow the lead of students at the University of Ottawa who exercised their free speech rights to counter Coulter's hateful message. This kind of response reaches far more people, and gives confidence to all those who feel isolated or threatened by Coulter's attacks.

Protesting bigotry is not a threat to free speech. It was -- and is -- the right thing to do.

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker, issue 517, April 2010.

 

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