What happened at the Université du Québec à Montréal yesterday was depressingly familiar. The names and addresses might have changed, but it was the same dreary tale of mob rule and intimidation triumphing over reason and open debate. And in the aftermath, the reputation of yet another Montreal university as a haven of free speech lay tattered in the mud.
This time the mob focused its fury on U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci, who had been invited to speak to a UQAM think-tank. The goal was not to challenge Cellucci or debate his views, all of which would have been perfectly acceptable and indeed invigorating, but to silence him. And to their shame and the university's detriment, the mob succeeded.
UQAM's administrators, uneasy about their ability to handle the security threat posed by the self-appointed censors of the Bloquez l'empire "collective," cancelled the ambassador's appearance. Another voice silenced, another debate quashed, another defeat for democracy.
This nasty cycle has got to stop. It began when a violent mob forced Concordia University to cancel an appearance by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2002. At first, it seemed Concordia would back down again this year when the same crowd threatened to disrupt a scheduled speech by another former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. But after some hemming and hawing, the university, to its credit, promised to provide a secure locale for him on its Loyola campus.
Still, the ranters and window-smashers have won too many victories, and yesterday's back-down will only embolden them. Hooligans cannot be allowed to decide who speaks on Montreal campuses. And if that means universities have to invest in better security, then so be it.