I don't like Ann Coulter. In fact, I would go so far as to so I hate Ann Coulter. She's a shrill, unpleasant human being who cynically preaches ignorance and intolerance to make her living as a cog in the paleo-conservative anger machine. I try to ignore Ann Coulter as much as possible in the hopes that she will just - somehow - go away and leave us alone. But as much as I hate Ann Coulter, I also love freedom of expression. Which is why I'm so irritated by this whole flap at the University of Ottawa.
In case you missed it, here's what happened: Ms. Coulter is currently on a speaking tour of three Canadian universities, including the University of Ottawa. On Friday, March 19, the Vice-President Academic and Provost of U of O, Francois Houle, wrote a letter (read it here) reminding Coulter of Canada's anti-hate legislation and warning her to be respectful during her speech. This was pretty unusual, and got tongues wagging on both sides of the border. But then, in a truly bizarre move, the university canceled Coulter's speech last night. Apparently, it was a "public safety issue", although I suspect it was more of a case of intellectual cowardice.
Here's the thing: freedom of speech is important. And it is really important that everyone be afforded this right equally. Canceling a speech because of what someone might say is wrong. If Coulter were to say something hateful enough to trigger Canada's hate speech laws (legislation which I don't entirely agree with, but that's a post for another day), then she should be charged. But the point is that this should happen after her speech, not before.
When people - especially those who oppose Ms. Coulter's views - let her speak, they actually do themselves a favour. It gives them insight into the twisted machinations of her brain. I always hate it when, say, a white-power guy is set to speak and everyone shows up and boos him off the stage. Listen to the moron. Learn how his mind works. If you're serious about engaging in the war of ideas, you should at know your enemy. That's just good strategy.
Gagging Ann Coulter also shifts the debate into her preferred zone of debate - perpetual victimhood. As soon as her speech was cancelled, the conversation immediately changed from "Are Ann Coulter's views correct?" to "Is Ann Coulter being persecuted for her views?" The first debate is pretty easy for her opponents to win. The second is almost impossible. The University of Ottawa has done Ms. Coulter a solid by confirming her central speaking point: liberal society - particularly universities - are anti-free speech and discriminate against people with conservative views. People like Coulter can be intellectually defeated (here's a good example), but you've got to have the balls to engage them in open debate. This business just gives Coulter a free pass.
In the end, universities are supposed to be places of debate rife with the conflict of ideas, not bastions of shrinking liberal violets who lack the courage of their own convictions. Let's fight ignorance with facts, intolerance with reason. Let's fight out in the open and without fear. And above all, let's not hide behind our laws and hand our opponents an easy victory.