Would-Be Prior Restraint

April 2010

The actions of Fran├žois Houle, the University of Ottawa's vice-president academic and provost, who has attempted to impose self-censorship on Ann Coulter, a U.S. conservative talking head, are an affront to his claim that the university welcomes "meaningful exchanges of ideas." Mr. Houle's e-mail warning, in advance of her scheduled talk last night, is offensive on any number of levels, not least for the national platform it has given Ms. Coulter.

Mr. Houle's outline of possible legal ramifications, the worrying implication that free speech in Canada is carefully circumscribed, in effect government-regulated, and his finger-wagging admonition to maintain "respect and civility," militate against the sanctity of free expression in places of higher learning and serve to embarrass his institution.

Ms. Coulter responded with good humour, mocking Mr. Houle by alleging he had targeted her as a member of an identifiable group, suggesting she had been made into a victim of a hate crime and therefore would be filing a complaint with the Ontario or Canadian human rights commission alleging as much. "I'm sure the human rights commission will get to the bottom of it," she said to a cheering audience in London, Ontario, the night before her scheduled Ottawa appearance.

It is unlikely, however, Mr. Houle will see anything amusing in this. And if she actually follows through with her threat, it could mean that Canadians will be seeing and hearing a lot more from Ms. Coulter as she wages her campaign to bestow free speech on a grateful nation. We will have only Mr. Houle to thank.

The idea that the Mounted Police might be sent in pursuit of Ms. Coulter over her overwrought brand of conservative oratory is, of course, silly. What is not is the fact that Mr. Houle has evidently taken it upon himself to serve as the arbiter of what constitutes "civilized discussion" in a university. These are awesome powers to invest in an academic bureaucrat, which raises worrying questions about limitations on thought and expression at his institution.