Friday, March 26, 2010

Culture: A Bad Week for Free Speech

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This wasn't a good week for the concept of free speech in the United States or Canada. Yet, when the dust settles, I would still rather be on this side of the border.

Canada probably looks the most unintelligent this week, largely because of a letter from University of Ottawa President Allan Rock. Rock warned invited speaker Ann Coulter, a conservative known for expressing over-the-top views for the sake of self-promotion, that some of the things she had said in the past might result in criminal charges if stated in Canada. Besides not doing a good job of describing Canadian law, Rock's letter was pathetic because it handed Coulter publicity--and a nice excuse to cancel her University of Ottawa speech because of "safety concerns" and create even more publicity. Coulter's speeches in London, Ontario and Calgary, Alberta were not canceled, and police did not find any reason to arrest her. By all accounts, there wasn't any consideration--serious or otherwise--given to doing so, short of her inciting a riot.

It is absolutely true that Canada does not have free speech protections as stringent as found in the United States' First Amendment. Here, any statement which could be construed as incitement against an identifiable group is not protected, as enforced by human rights tribunals. More importantly than in law, there is tradition of civility in the culture here, and anyone deviating from that tradition would not be taken seriously in public life, whether saying legal things or not. Rock was trying to allude to this in his letter, but didn't do a very good job of it.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Democrats are accusing Republicans of inciting people to violence. A number of Congressional Democrats have been threatened and their property vandalized in the wake of the passage of health insurance reform. Democrats have cited references to passage of legislation as "Armageddon" and phrases like "it'll be the death of you all" as evidence that Republicans are inciting the threats and violence.

Technically, even under the First Amendment, incitement to violence is not permitted. Yet, it happens all the time in the United States, and nothing happens. Talk shows hosts not worth naming but with significant audiences have been known to call for the "eradication" of liberals, not just liberal thought. The left is not immune--they used the similar tactics against the right more than a generation ago.

So, in the end we have the ugly side of too much speech in the United States and the ugly side of too much potential censorship in Canada. Yet, Canada looks stupid largely because of the actions of one Canadian, as amplified by a team headed by a US author. The United States looks stupid because of a broad movement.

It's not hard to choose sides in this one. Canada goes back to being normal as soon as Rock stops writing and Coulter leaves the country. A lot more will have to happen for the United States to return to civilized behavior.

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