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Coulter and the right: they can dish it out, but they can't take it

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The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.

          -- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Schenck v. United States, 1919

Friends of the notorious American hate-caster Ann Coulter have attempted to frame the controversies stemming from her continuing Canadian speaking tour as freedom of speech issues. This is, of course, baloney.

Indeed, it is more than passingly ironic that these same defenders of Coulter's offensive views were so enthusiastic just a year ago in their support for the Canadian government's successful and completely illegitimate suppression of the opinions of British Member of Parliament George Galloway, who was banned from the country on fatuous "national security" grounds for speaking out in defence of the rights of the besieged Palestinian people.

After all, Galloway and his strongly expressed opinions posed no threat whatsoever to the tranquility of our Dominion. Coulter, on the other hand, does present a danger that deserves to be considered in light of the absurd and self-justifying publicity being generated by her Canadian supporters.

God knows, Coulter has no shortage of opportunities in both Canada and the United States to broadcast her obnoxious opinions, so even if her attempt to hate-monger at the University of Ottawa Tuesday night had been put down by the authorities, it would not have amounted to much of a suppression of free speech.

In the event, of course, the authorities were nowhere to be found. Her rabble-rousing was in fact called off by her bodyguard on the questionable grounds a boisterous crowd of protesters posed a threat of violence. In reality, this was highly unlikely. It is much more likely, indeed, that the cancellation and its alleged justification were a ruse intended to generate additional publicity for this person's risible claim that so-called conservatives are victims of persecution by the allegedly "politically correct."

No doubt this street-corner Cromwell, to borrow a euphonious phrase, will receive a more respectful hearing at the University of Calgary this evening. Pity.

Be that as it may, the real question in this case is, rather, when do a speaker’s opinions (which she clearly has a right to hold and express, no matter how benighted they may be) stray into the zone of advocating actions that are both criminal and a threat to Canada's peace, order and good government?

And here, given the kind of things Coulter frequently has to say, is where we find ourselves in the zone famously pondered by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the United States Supreme Court in 1919. To wit: even "the most stringent protection of free speech" does not protect a person who through their words actually puts other human beings in danger.

And so we have Coulter, for example, attempting to incite opponents of abortion to murder physicians who provide that procedure. "I wouldn’t kill an abortionist myself, but I wouldn’t want to impose my moral values on others," she said, before absurdly denying that she'd just said what she'd just said.

Such outright appeals to criminality are in fact legitimate targets of the authorities who so far have been so conspicuously absent in the case of Coulter's visit.

Meanwhile, don't forget, our country’s profound commitment to the right of free expression also extends to Canadian citizens who want to protest Coulter's most odious views, or even those that are merely silly. This does not amount to suppressing Coulter's right to free speech, as is preposterously claimed.

Certainly, while it may have been tantamount to waving a red flag at a bull, it was hardly an assault on the rights we Canadians generously grant her as a visiting non-citizen for a University of Ottawa official to write a note cautioning her about the laws in this country. This action was more akin to advice to a well-known smoker that smoking is not permitted in the hall where she proposes to light up.

The fact is, right-wing foreigners like Coulter and their Canadian friends -- including, one suspects, Coulter's friends in the federal Conservative cabinet -- are whiners who believe in their hearts that freedom of expression is for them but not for the rest of us.

They can dish it out, but they can't take it.

This post is also found on AlbertaDiary.ca.

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