(updated below – Update II)
I’ve written many times before about the evils of “hate speech” laws that are prevalent in Canada and Europe — people being fined, prosecuted and hauled before official tribunals for expressing political opinions which the State has prohibited and criminalized. I won’t rehash those arguments here, but I do want to note a particularly creepy illustration of how these laws manifest. The far-right hatemonger Ann Coulter was invited by a campus conservative group to speak at the University of Ottawa, and the Vice Provost of that college sent Coulter a letter warning her that she may be subject to criminal prosecution if the views she expresses fall into the realm of prohibited viewpoints:
Dear Ms. Coulter,
I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. . . .
I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that 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.
You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. . . .
Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.
I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.
Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa
Personally, I think threatening someone with criminal prosecution for the political views they might express is quite “hateful.” So, too, is anointing oneself the arbiter of what is and is not sufficiently “civilized discussion” to the point of using the force of criminal law to enforce it. If I were administering Canada’s intrinsically subjective “hate speech” laws (and I never would), I’d consider prosecuting Provost Houle for this letter. The hubris required to believe that you can declare certain views so objectively hateful that they should be criminalized is astronomical; in so many eras, views that were most scorned by majorities ended up emerging as truth.
For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes, will never understand the view that it’s better to try to suppress adverse beliefs than to air them, and will especially never understand people’s failure to realize that endorsing this power will, one day, very likely result in their own views being criminalized when their political enemies (rather than allies) are empowered. Who would ever want to empower officious technocrats to issue warnings along the lines of: be forewarned: if you express certain political views, you may be committing a crime; guide and restrict yourself accordingly? I obviously devote a substantial amount of my time and energy to critiquing the actions of the U.S. Government, but the robust free speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment and largely protected by American courts continues to be one of the best features of American political culture.
UPDATE: When Noam Chomsky (yes, I’m quoting him twice in one day) is asked whether he thinks America is irrevocably broken and/or whether its political process has any extremely positive features, he typically says — as he did in this 2005 interview: ”In other dimensions, the U.S. is very free. For example, freedom of speech is protected in the United States to an extent that is unique in the world.” That’s the critical point: as long as the State is absolutely barred from criminalizing political views, then any change remains possible because citizens are free to communicate with and persuade one another and express their political opinions without being threatened by the Government with criminal sanctions of the kind Provost Houle conveyed here and which are not infrequently issued by numerous other Canadian and European functionaries.
UPDATE II: Just to underscore the point: last year, Canada banned the vehemently anti-war, left-wing British MP George Galloway from entering their country, on extremely dubious “national security” grounds. Galloway is a vociferous critic of Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan as well a defender of Hamas, which were clearly the bases for his exclusion. Though that was under a different law than the one with which Coulter is threatened, that’s always the result of this mindset: those defending these sorts of speech restrictions always foolishly think that the restrictions will be confined to those views which they dislike, and then are astonished and outraged when these censorship powers are turned against views with which they agree (the Bush administration sought to exclude Muslim scholars from the U.S. who were critical of its wars based on the same rationale).
To see how a genuinely principled individual thinks about such things, see this comment from a right-wing Canadian decrying the exclusion of Galloway despite the fact that he finds Galloway’s left-wing views noxious in the extreme. In 2006, Newt Gingrich advocated that free speech rights should be restricted for “radical Muslims” because they were preaching dangerous “hatred,” speech which Gingrich wanted criminalized. Those who defend “hate speech” laws like the ones in Canada and Europe are Gingrich’s like-minded comrades, even if they want to criminalize different views than the ones Gingrich happened to be targeting.