Americans don’t usually draw that much of a distinction between the U.S. and Canada. After all, we both speak English, it’s easy to travel back and forth between the same countries, and we even share a lot of entertainers. The differences seem minute: a few cold weather sports, a penchant for saying “eh,” the metric system. But the Canadians have one difference from the United States that is a long way from tiny. They don’t believe in freedom of speech.
Last week, famed conservative columnist and firebrand Ann Coulter was set to visit the University of Ottawa. However, before she even set forth on Canadian soil, she was met with a warning. Not a request to be nice or to avoid offense, but a warning based on the power of the law.
In an email sent to Ms. Coulter on Friday…, Mr. Houle (the University Provost) wrote: “Our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or “free speech”) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.”
He continued, “Promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges.”
After also mentioning defamation law, the provost wrote, “I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.”
Respect and civility are not bad things, but should they be enforced by threat of criminal charges? The Canadians clearly believe so. Notice the provost’s quotes around “free speech,” as if it is a quant concept that they don’t much buy into.
The limits on freedom of speech did not end there for Ms. Coulter and the people who wished to hear her speak. The federation of students barred a volunteer from putting up posters advertising her appearance. Her appearance was ultimately shut down by the police, who, instead of protecting her and her rights, chose to allow the protesters and rioters to control who is allowed to speak.
Ann Coulter is not the first to find herself on the wrong side of Canada’s restrictive speech laws. In 2006, Mark Steyn wrote an article in MacCleans magazine titled “The Future Belongs to Islam.” In American law, defamation, which is not protected by the First Amendment, only occurs if the speech in question is false. This is not the case in Canada, where Mr. Steyn was brought up on defamation charges before the Orwellian named Human Rights Commission. The charge: publishing anything that “discriminates against a person or group, or exposes them to hatred or contempt.” Although the charges were ultimately dropped, Mr. Steyn was forced to devote many months to defending himself against real criminal charges for doing nothing more than expressing his opinion. In Canada, the right not to be offended trumps the basic human right to free expression.
Now, I happen to enjoy Ms. Coulter’s wit, although I understand that many of her comments sound ugly to those with little sense of humor. I think Mark Styne’s writing is often nothing short of brilliant. But, even for those who don’t, the good, freedom-loving American can start off with “I don’t agree with what that person says. . .” but finish with a strong defense of that person’s right to speak.
In Canada, they value civility over our most basic freedom. Susan Cole, from newspaper Toronto Now, explained in an interview with Fox News:
“We don’t have that same political culture here in (Canada)….We don’t have a 1st Amendment, we don’t have a religion of free speech.” …
“Students sign off on all kinds of agreements as to how they’ll behave on campus, in order to respect diversity, equity, all of the values that Canadians really care about. Those are the things that drive our political culture. Not freedoms, not rugged individualism, not free speech. It’s different, and for us, it works.”
Given the choice between freedom and civility, I’ll take freedom every time.