Just let them talk

Peter
Peter Jackson
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

It wasn't a monumental issue, but it was enough to spur two or three hundred Memorial University students to march up the Prince Philip Parkway.

It was 1980 or thereabouts, and students were upset about federal cuts to education funding. At the student newspaper, The Muse, we put together a florid front-page drawing of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dressed as Marie Antoinette, along with the words "Let them eat shit." We debated the last word briefly, but sent it to the printer's unaltered.

It wasn't a monumental issue, but it was enough to spur two or three hundred Memorial University students to march up the Prince Philip Parkway.

It was 1980 or thereabouts, and students were upset about federal cuts to education funding. At the student newspaper, The Muse, we put together a florid front-page drawing of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dressed as Marie Antoinette, along with the words "Let them eat shit." We debated the last word briefly, but sent it to the printer's unaltered.

It was in 1980 that students blockaded the parkway when one of their own was accidentally knocked down and killed. The Muse was front and centre again, and many of us joined protesters in the trenches, fighting for safer passage across the busy thoroughfare.

In those days, The Muse billed itself as an "agent of social change." It meant we were willing to shake things up. We'd take a stance and actively push it.

There's nothing new about student activism. We've seen it time and again around the globe, from Tiananmen Square to Thailand. Sometimes it makes a difference; sometimes it meets with disaster. But students tend to think with their hearts and talk with their feet.

So, I can't help but feel a certain empathy for University of Ottawa students who shut down a speech by right-wing wingnut Ann Coulter last week. Unfortunately, in their exuberance, those students played right into Coulter's hands. She does, after all, make a living by attacking political correctness.

Shattered credibility

Coulter's schtick has actually been wearing thin of late. She's getting fewer gigs on mainstream networks, and her credibility has been shattered many times over by critics. Her speeches in Canada would likely have flown under the radar were it not for the showdown in Ottawa.

But don't blame the students. They were riled and they acted on impulse.

Nope. It's not the students. It's those nutty professors - and administrators - who should know better.

In Ottawa, university vice-president Francois Houle sent a pre-emptive letter to Coulter reminding her of Canada's hate speech laws. It was, of course, only a red flag to a bull. And it backfired big time.

Open letter

Instead, Houle should have sent an open letter to students, asking them to let Coulter speak at all costs.

Universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech. They are supposed to welcome diverse views. Coulter may be insulting and downright ignorant, but she hardly merits censorship.

Usually, of course, it's professors themselves who generate the controversy. Like those naÏve neo-hippies at the University of Regina, who last week equated a fund to pay tuition for dead soldiers' families with promoting imperialism. Good grief!

Further back, there was a University of Western Ontario professor, Philippe Rushton, who received funding from right-wing think tanks to show which races were smarter by measuring their craniums.

At UWO, students at least allowed Rushton to defend himself at an open forum. They registered their disapproval tacitly, by showing up wearing tape measures as headbands. It was funny.

Come to think of it, that would have been a far better approach to the Coulter tour. In solidarity with her favourite target, Muslims, Ottawa students could have worn hijabs and veils en masse. Alas, the best ideas are those formed in hindsight.

Free thought

Meanwhile, universities must guard as sacred the principles of free thought and expression. It is the foundation of true scholarship, and society benefits immensely from the unshackled research that occurs within those walls.

That doesn't mean everything that goes on is laudable. A lot of wacky and even offensive notions spew forth from lecture hall podiums. But you have to take the good with the bad.

So, let's just let the wingnuts talk. Let them get it out of their system.

It's the price we pay for academic freedom.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: University of Ottawa, University of Western Ontario, University of Regina

Geographic location: Prince Philip Parkway, Ottawa, Canada Tiananmen Square Thailand

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • fintip
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    And so if it was neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel who appeared at a Canadian university and called for the invasion of Israel, the murder of all its leaders and the forced conversion of all Jews to Christianity, you would support that? You do understand that Ann Coulter is on record saying that all Muslim countries should be invaded, their leaders executed and all Muslims forced to convert to Christianity? You do understand that it is a crime in Canada to voice or publish views that are likely to incite hatred against an identifiable group? Do you have any idea just how bigoted, racist and toxic this female is? Of course university campuses should openly encourage and explore alternative viewpoints. But are there different standards for universities than for the community at large?? We can be reasonably confident that 99% of all students who might attend an Ernst Zundel or Ann Coulter event are discerning enough to understand that they embody the most hateful and destructive elements of humanity. What about the other one percent? What about that one impressionable 17 year old who might take her comments at face value and who might assume that if the university is facilitating her public appearance, then she can't be all that bad? Who shares the responsibility if a group of thugs led by that 17 year old later beat or kill an innocent person because they happened to be of the wrong religion or wearing the wrong clothes? And if it was your family member or friend Mr. Jackson who was either the assailant or the victim, would you still be a staunch defender of Coulter's right to spread her hate at our university. Universities are not only public institutions, governments account one way or another for a significant share of their expenditures. It may be one thing to allow Ann Coulter to stand on a street corner and hurl her invective at passers-by (at least until she breaks the law in doing so), it is yet another to accommodate her within an institution of higher learning supported by your tax dollars and mine and, in so doing, confer - implicitly at least - a cloak of respectability on her hate mongering. You can take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your views. The Globe and Mail for example had editorialized to much the same end. What is even more ironic and hypocritical about the Globe's posture is that they regularly censor on-line comments that are far less intolerant or inciting than those being spewed regularly by the likes of Ann Coulter. Yes, Coulter was given even more public exposure as a result of the written caution issued in advance by the Vice-President of the University of Ottawa. But that larger exposure also triggered a substantial if not overwhelming public condemnation of her bigoted views. The University of Ottawa had already decided to allow Coulter to speak. The issuance of a warning letter to a known hate monger was a very reasonable and responsible precaution - not only because it put Coulter on notice but more so perhaps that it served as a reminder to her audience, the student population and the public at large that in giving her a bully pulpit, the University was in no way condoning the remarks she was about to make. I think actually Professor Houle is to be commended not condemned for his prudent stand.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    I followed this Coulter story with a modicum of interest , more so to gauge the reactions of Canadians really . Being such a diverse lot , our people rarely fail to deliver . Southey , debunked the woman outright , Wente , went straight for the provost's jugular . Andrew Coyne's self-righteous indignation was so palpable , it had him rising out of his seat . Rex Murphy had this weird Zhivagoesque fixation happening . Not only was there a very diverse reaction to the emotionally charged subject of the Freedom of Speech , there was also the added surprising revelation of the variety of preconceived opinion . And then we have the very antithesis of a popinjay , Peter Jackson , whose only advice is, to let them talk .

  • Elbert
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    Yes, the students aren't to blame. After all, they're just children.
    For more on the murder of free speech in Canada, click here:
    www.culturecrusader.wordpress.com

  • fintip
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    And so if it was neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel who appeared at a Canadian university and called for the invasion of Israel, the murder of all its leaders and the forced conversion of all Jews to Christianity, you would support that? You do understand that Ann Coulter is on record saying that all Muslim countries should be invaded, their leaders executed and all Muslims forced to convert to Christianity? You do understand that it is a crime in Canada to voice or publish views that are likely to incite hatred against an identifiable group? Do you have any idea just how bigoted, racist and toxic this female is? Of course university campuses should openly encourage and explore alternative viewpoints. But are there different standards for universities than for the community at large?? We can be reasonably confident that 99% of all students who might attend an Ernst Zundel or Ann Coulter event are discerning enough to understand that they embody the most hateful and destructive elements of humanity. What about the other one percent? What about that one impressionable 17 year old who might take her comments at face value and who might assume that if the university is facilitating her public appearance, then she can't be all that bad? Who shares the responsibility if a group of thugs led by that 17 year old later beat or kill an innocent person because they happened to be of the wrong religion or wearing the wrong clothes? And if it was your family member or friend Mr. Jackson who was either the assailant or the victim, would you still be a staunch defender of Coulter's right to spread her hate at our university. Universities are not only public institutions, governments account one way or another for a significant share of their expenditures. It may be one thing to allow Ann Coulter to stand on a street corner and hurl her invective at passers-by (at least until she breaks the law in doing so), it is yet another to accommodate her within an institution of higher learning supported by your tax dollars and mine and, in so doing, confer - implicitly at least - a cloak of respectability on her hate mongering. You can take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your views. The Globe and Mail for example had editorialized to much the same end. What is even more ironic and hypocritical about the Globe's posture is that they regularly censor on-line comments that are far less intolerant or inciting than those being spewed regularly by the likes of Ann Coulter. Yes, Coulter was given even more public exposure as a result of the written caution issued in advance by the Vice-President of the University of Ottawa. But that larger exposure also triggered a substantial if not overwhelming public condemnation of her bigoted views. The University of Ottawa had already decided to allow Coulter to speak. The issuance of a warning letter to a known hate monger was a very reasonable and responsible precaution - not only because it put Coulter on notice but more so perhaps that it served as a reminder to her audience, the student population and the public at large that in giving her a bully pulpit, the University was in no way condoning the remarks she was about to make. I think actually Professor Houle is to be commended not condemned for his prudent stand.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:53

    I followed this Coulter story with a modicum of interest , more so to gauge the reactions of Canadians really . Being such a diverse lot , our people rarely fail to deliver . Southey , debunked the woman outright , Wente , went straight for the provost's jugular . Andrew Coyne's self-righteous indignation was so palpable , it had him rising out of his seat . Rex Murphy had this weird Zhivagoesque fixation happening . Not only was there a very diverse reaction to the emotionally charged subject of the Freedom of Speech , there was also the added surprising revelation of the variety of preconceived opinion . And then we have the very antithesis of a popinjay , Peter Jackson , whose only advice is, to let them talk .

  • Elbert
    July 01, 2010 - 19:51

    Yes, the students aren't to blame. After all, they're just children.
    For more on the murder of free speech in Canada, click here:
    www.culturecrusader.wordpress.com