We are so accustomed to the near-absolute protection of the First Amendment in America that we often forget other countries don’t offer their citizens the same freedoms. Glaring differences in free speech rights were made apparent last week when political commentator and all-around embarrassment to the Republican party Ann Coulter attempted to make an appearance March 23 at Canada’s University of Ottowa to speak about “political correctness, media bias and freedom of speech” as part of a three-city tour of the country.
Ignoring that Ann Coulter discussing political correctness is akin to a Bernie Madoff lecture on business ethics, Coulter is perhaps even more controversial in speech-sensitive Canada than in the U.S.
Her appearance prompted a letter from Francis Houle, the University of Ottowa’s provost, which was published last Monday in Toronto’s National Post:
“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 ... I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.”
The crowd of attendees and protesters at Coulter’s event soon grew too large for the school’s auditorium to hold, and a chaotic series of events, including a false fire alarm, led Coulter’s organizers to cancel the event and led scores of American commentators to denounce Canada’s suppression of free speech.
Is requiring visitors and citizens to act with “respect and civility” so barbaric? Canada’s free-speech laws prohibit incitement of hatred of people based on their color, race, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation. It’s precisely these laws that prohibit members of Topeka, Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church from entering the country.
If you’re still unaware of Westboro’s operations, consider yourself lucky. For years the group has sent small groups of its members across America, using the funerals of soldiers killed overseas as vehicles to spread their message that the deaths of men in the armed services are brought about by God as righteous punishment for tolerating homosexuality. They picket outside churches and cemeteries, often carrying signs that read “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and “SEMPER FI FAGS.”
And constitutionally, what they do is completely permissible. Numerous suits have been brought against the church, though in each the court has sided with Westboro, protecting the church’s right to free political expression.
While the Supreme Court will soon hear a case against the church, the court has a history of a rather broad interpretation of first amendment rights, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion as to what the outcome will be.
Free speech is of the utmost importance in a healthy democracy. The American system allows citizens to hear — and spread — a broad variety of ideas. Even dissident voices have the right to be heard.
But when groups like the Westboro Baptist Church have complete license to spread their vitriolic hate, maybe it’s time we reconsider how far our freedoms should go.
Reach Zach at firstname.lastname@example.org