Ann Coulter, Hate Speech, and Free Societies

i-7fcb4efd56656987a1c5883cc03b9b6e-silent_ill_towleroad2.jpegAnn Coulter is a vicious and mean-spirited demagogue and I'm ashamed that I share more DNA with her than chimpanzees or bonobos. She represents the worst kind of reactionary partisanship and should be condemned by all quarters in the spirit of basic decency. That being said, however, I don't believe a government should have any role in prohibiting her speech, regardless of how offensive it is. And it's pretty offensive. Just after the Sept. 11 attacks Coulter wrote, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." This got her fired from the column she wrote at the conservative magazine The National Review. She later said that Muslims shouldn't be allowed on airplanes but should take "flying carpets" instead. Now she's stated these ugly and racist remarks directly to a 17-year-old Muslim student, Fatima Al-Dhaher, during Coulter's recent visit to Western Ontario University:

"As a 17-year-old student of this university, Muslim, should I be converted to Christianity? Second of all, since I don't have a magic carpet, what other modes do you suggest," Al-Dhaher said to loud and sustained applause. . .

To shouts of "Answer the question," Coulter finally replied "What mode of transportation? Take a camel."

However, while all decent citizens should condemn these comments (as well as all racist, homophobic, sexist, and anti-semitic remarks) there are significant concerns when the state begins deciding which views should be voiced and which shouldn't.

In a letter written by Francois Houle, Vice-President Academic and Provost at the University of Ottawa, Coulter was warned that she could be arrested if she wasn't careful:

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.

This can only be constituted as a threat. While Provost Houle is welcome to disagree with Coulter's views, what this letter represents is an abuse of authority. I'm not alone in these concerns. Constitutional lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald as well as reknowned dissident Noam Chomsky have likewise aired their concerns on this point. At his blog Greenwald writes:

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?

Any effort to criminalize speech is effectively criminalizing dissent. At one time it was illegal to speak publicly about birth control (Emma Goldman was arrested more than a dozen times for giving speeches on the topic), women were arrested for picketing the White House demanding white women's suffrage, and police officers have beaten African-American and white protesters for riding buses together across state lines. Criminalizing free speech most often works to the detriment of marginalized groups and is in the benefit of the powerful. During the Olympics it was illegal for Canadians to express their disagreement with their government by holding signs denigrating the Olympic symbol, even if those signs were inside their home. Once the state gets involved in legislating opinions we are in slippery slope territory.

Coulter is a shock jock and a mere flash in the pan of our public discourse. She will be forgotten about and the world will be better for it. But we should be careful about the desire to criminalize views that we disagree with, because those remain long after the person they were meant to protect us from. This, of course, says nothing about the rights of others to protest forums where those views are being voiced. This is precisely what student groups did at the University of Ottawa. Their protest was vocal but peaceful. In the end Coulter's bodyguard decided it was "unsafe" for her and the event was cancelled. The students shut down the forum, as did students in North Carolina last year when the vitriolic Tom Tancredo was scheduled to speak. Good for them. They just need to realize, of course, that others have the same rights they do and conservative groups are taking notes on their tactics.

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The âismsâ words (racism, sexism, anti-semitism) refer to power relations that are historic and embedded, and these relations do not flip back and forth. The same groups that have historically held power in the US and Canada, continue to do so.

From this framework, we can see how free speech is a slippery problem. Ironically, it seems to surface when there is a need to stifle speech that challenges social power (which is what the U of Ottawa students were doing - challenging the inequitable social power relations that Coulterâs âspeechâ upheld).

She says it so I don't have to.

What I don't like is when major members of the "community" (that being relative to the situation) do not openly and vigorously condemn people like Coulter. The centrist who says "Well, she has a right to say that" when she says something stupid should say "Well, she should be condemned for saying it. She's abusing the right society gives her."

When members of congress were called "Nigger" and "Faggot" and tea baggers openly said they would shoot people over health car, no one said "They have the right to say that" even though apparently they did.

she's hilarious and i love her. it is, indeed, pathetic that people take her seriously, but if you don't, she is almost as entertaining as glenn beck. she should be publicly mocked and laughed at, to shouts of "dance, monkey! dance!!"

public censure at its best. ;)

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

I am Canadian. We have not criminalized views that are controversial, or that any ruling government party disagrees with.

We have criminalized speech that promotes hatred of violence.

We are a different country with different laws.

Not a threat, just a reminder. :)

Recently my campus has been involved in a mess involving a "free speech" group whose stated purpose is to give a platform for 'any' political views, but usually hosts Holocaust-deniers, anti-Semites, etc... and is well known for some pretty awful hate speech. There have been student protests both for and against, and the administration has been tearing its hair out trying to figure out how to balance "freedom of speech" and protecting students on campus from hate-speech. Thoughts?

By Winifred Kehl (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

Note that in the U.S., the first-Amendment protection of free speech had to be fought for.
In the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that a defendant did not have a First Amendment right to free speech against the draft during World War I. (That is the decision famous for the Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, ".. the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.")
In the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, the USSC decided that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting and likely to incite imminent lawless action. In particular, it overruled Ohio's criminal syndicalism statute, because that statute broadly prohibited the mere advocacy of violence. (From Wikipedia).

In the U.S. 'free speech' is indeed well-protected nowadays, and that is a very good thing, but also, I note, its exercise will rarely have any effect. The public debate is clearly dominated by the large 'Mainstream Media' (MSM) beholden to major corporations. Perhaps the rise of the blogs might improve on that, giving more citizens a voice.
Then, I think that many people in the U.S. are rather circumspect about what they say in public about their political opinions, if these are different from those of their employer or community. The MSM often delineate what is acceptable, that is why having Coulter, Limbaugh on TV and radio made their rather hateful speech acceptable, e.g. among the 'tea-baggers.'

In line with K.B. @4, bringing up two American thinkers (Greenwald and Chomsky) to support your point only emphasizes why the provost might have wanted to let Coulter know the laws are different.

... 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.

This can only be constituted as a threat.

Well ... duh. So could "thievery is illegal in canada, so twocking stuff could lead to criminal charges".

Hate speech is against Canadian law. You know: law? As in "breaking the law"? The provost is perfectly correct to warn speakers that they may accidentally break the law by actions which are legal where they came from, but which are illegal i Canada. It's a courtesy. Compare it to explaining to speakers from foreign countries that - for instance - certain legal medications where they come from will get them into trouble if they bring them over the border.

I know that americans tend to think that all the world should be covered by their constitution and the layers of whacky interpretations that their legal system has given it, but it just ain't so. Next you'll be outraged - outraged! - that americans cannot simply wear guns in public when they visit other countries.

"Any effort to criminalize speech is effectively criminalizing dissent."

So why is it that there are countries - naughty boys and girls that they are for not listening to dad - which don't follow in America's footsteps in making a fetish of freedom of speech yet which still have vibrant political cultures? And, in fact, many of these countries have what looks to be a far more vibrant political culture than the seamless monolith of the Republocrat hegemony. Or does dissent mean the insane tea-bagging/birther/truther lunacy of American culture? Is that the dissent you want? True, we don't have that in Europe but it's hardly something to aspire to, is it?

Racism is not "an opinion someone dislikes" and being intolerant of someone coming into your space and being a poor guest when you are hosting their presence with politeness(Its too polite to even let Coulter near the building imho) is not "criminalising dissent". That's not dissent. It's racism, it's shameful, it's rude in a host's hall and it SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED.
I have to say I disagree with you here. She was not within her rights or the law to come around and be a cunt, and if you tolerate it, you're just as much a part of the problem as she is.

The ever-stale quote: evil prevails when good men do nothing.

I believed in free speech, but looking at world trends one can only conclude that chamberpot immigration and free speech are incompatible. A diverse society in which many ethnic groups are strong enough to compete for power is a tinderbox.

White PC libs aren't really attuned to competition as they seem to view society as a cooperative venture in which they are mentors and champions of "minorities" forever and can't conceive of a possible future as an oppressed minority.

Wait... are you complaining about a different country having different laws from your own? And calling a reminder of those laws and charges that may result from infringement a threat? Or did I misunderstand something?

I love Canada, and I'm very appreciative of my hosts (I may even decide to stay in this fair country). In many respects I think the US would benefit by learning from Canadian practices. However, I think that the US is unusual in their laws protecting freedom of expression. Obviously this is different in the case of calling for a physical attack or the perpetuation of a crime. However, here's the issue: everyone's in favor of protecting speech they agree with. But if you're not in favor of protecting the expression of ideas you abhor you're really not interested in free speech at all.

i'm not trying to be obtuse here, but how, exactly does her reply, "take a camel" promote hatred or violence? i think one would have difficulty making that case. it may, indeed, be downright myopic and stupid, but no need to make it into something it isn't.

for that matter, there are things written here in the comments section which are every bit as offensive as her comment (for instance, most women i know just love it when a word that describes female genitalia is used as a pejorative) and yet no one seems to be threatening legal action here.

don't give ann coulter more credit or power than she deserves. and get off your high horse, canadians! not every american thinks and acts like your stereotypes. and spare me the insinuation that no one has a right to criticize the laws of other countries. how do you feel about north korea? china? your defensive attitude has sidetracked a perfectly reasonable question about the power of the state and the prudence of laws which restrict free speech.

the students did exactly the right thing by shutting down her forum with peaceful protests. no need to bring the law into it at all. i wonder why she was given a platform there in the first place?

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

"i'm not trying to be obtuse here"

Not trying, succeeding. A common term of abuse for arabs, and by extension muslims, is "camel jockey". Coulter's remark was clearly a reference to this abusive terminology and its underlying stereotype.

so, let me get this straight... you are able to discern what she "meant" rather than what she said? where did you get your amazing powers of telepathy, and can i have some too?

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

The thing that I fear about American style freedom of speech is that the people who seem to have the most influence in the States are the ones who think like Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. I think freedom of speech is a good thing, don't get me wrong but I've seen how their points of view are promoted, there's no room for debate. The kind of people who attend Anne Coulter speeches are people who agree with Anne Coulter, no dissenting opinions allowed. I take Anne seriously because she is so popular and successful, she's able to make a living off of of the ignorance that she spews. Sure, she's gotten in trouble with a lot of the things that she has said, but that certainly hasn't slowed her down, it hasn't stopped people from buying her books and making her a best selling author. In the country that promotes all points of view, the points of view that seem to get the most attention are the ones that are the most right leaning. Texas allowing anti-evolution disclaimers in their high school text books, rewriting their history books to be more "Texas centred". Some of the most ignorant points of view are being promoted against Barrack Obama's health care reform. The American opinion of socialized health care is pretty weird to most Canadians, not to mention almost every other Westernized nation. These conservative opinions are filtering up to Canada. More and more Canadians seem to be influenced by them, not the least of which is the idiot-stick that we currently call a Prime Minister. (Notice that I am able to express this opinion freely, for now) I mean, if that what American style freedom of speech is, you can have it.

By Susan Ferguson (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

Great points, all of them, Susan. This may go a little off topic (and someone mentioned it further up), but it seems like the corporatization and capitalization of the mainstream newsmedia, where shock sells, has contributed to this problem more than anything else. I feel like legislation (and the limiting of speech) isn't necessarily the best way to handle it. Surely education, and pubic dissent of these ridiculous views, would be more appropriate?

Don't worry, the "American" opinion of socialized health care is pretty strange to all free-thinking educated Americans, too!

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 24 Mar 2010 #permalink

Bottom line: Canada is not the United States. They are a sovereign nation with their own culture, laws, political structure, and history. Their parliamentary process is perfectly capable of responding to the will of the people. Often, it seems, better than their neighbors to the south. If the Canadian people want the likes of Coulter to be allowed to incite hate, they can and will change their own laws.

Whether we agree with the specifics or not, it is their right to place laws that restrict certain kinds of speech. In this case, the kind of hateful rhetoric that flows so freely from Coulter's lips. She wasn't being threatened. She was getting a gentle reminder that the kind of volatile nonsense she spews here can actually get her arrested North of the border.

Yes, I agree that it's easy for any State to overstep it's bounds and become abusive. But the case here isn't unlike the laws in the United States that make it illegal to yell "Movie!" in a crowded Firehouse.

What K.B., William, Paul, Pen, and Mike said. I'm a firm believer that your right to swing your fist stops at my face. has a couple of articles on this issue that might be of interest, including details of how Coulter's security guards calling off the event due to a couple of hundred protesters was spun into the police shutting down the speech due to a couple of thousand protesters...

Could not resist this.

Mind you, I wish that we did have the same free speech protections in Canada that exist in the US. Susan, you seem to be arguing that since some people in the USA have points of view you strongly disagree, and that since those opinions are influential, well, this whole free speech thing isn't worth it.

By Dave Ruddell (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

Actually, the whole issue of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater is a complete misnomer. A commenter above (#6) mentioned Schenck v. United States. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice who coined that phrase, used it in the Court's justification to prosecute anti-war activists during WWI. They were handing out leaflets talking about how the conflict was a rich man's war that the poor were being sent to fight. The issue would have been better understood as people standing outside a burning theater and warning people not to go in. Thankfully other rulings have protected similar forms of speech in the US today. It's just one reason among many that free speech rights are fundamental to a functioning democracy.

This can only be constituted as a threat.

Seriously? That's a threat? The fact that you think it's a threat is far more frightening than the letter, itself.

@B. (#10) As I said in my post, all racist, homophobic, SEXIST, and anti-semitic remarks should be condemned. It's clear that you disagree with me on this point.

@23 Actually, no, it isn't. Cunt isn't a sexist insult, or at least I've never seen or heard it used as such. It's exactly the same as calling people cocks (although one or the other may be stronger depending on where you are) - both men and women are equally capable of being labelled with either, or even both at the same time.

For example, "you fucking idiot you cunting cockface".

Unless you were referring to the quote at the end which only mentions men, but that seems to be pushing it a little.

By Captain Obvious (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

so, let me get this straight... you are able to discern what she "meant" rather than what she said? where did you get your amazing powers of telepathy, and can i have some too?

Posted by: SisterMaryLoquacious | March 25, 2010 2:17 AM

Don't be a prat. Your argument is stupid and juvenile as you try to win points. Ann Coulter has a history. And our history with Ann Coulter and her racist views and attitudes tell us exactly what she meant.

Arabs are, in her expressed opinion, sub-human. Arabs, in her expressed opinion, should be segregated into ghettos, subjected to ethnic profiling, thrown off of airplanes and/or sent back to the Mideast (even if they are native born or naturalized citizens).

In short, Ann Coulter has made her bed. It is more than fair to ascribe racist intent to her speech because her speech is, too often, racist. And, consequently, we don't have to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Just like I don't have to give the benefit of the doubt to a man breaking into my house. Sure, he "could" be lost or "mistaken." But I'm not so stupid to think so...

I'm hardcore on the free-speech side, as it allows me to call Ann Coulter whatever words I want to as well as allowing her to reveal her ignorant, racist bullshit for what it is. I don't approve of what she says, but I don't have to buy it. Limiting these people's speech will just give them something more to talk about, and more people will listen to them. Can you imagine if we actually muzzled Glen Blech? He'd be on shortwave radio 24/7 until his tear ducts dried up like raisins.

Sister Mary, while your posts @3 and 18 are intelligent, 14 makes you look like Glen Beck on Rush's drugs. Seriously? "We shouldn't allow Arabs on planes, they should take camels" is not promoting hatred? Here's what you missed: advocating that we make a blanket policy to take the right of travel away from someone based on their religion or ethnicity is hatred. It's scapegoating, it's stupid, and it demonstrates hatred of that particular group. It's not rocket surgery. While I applaud the other points you've made, please don't fall into the trap of pretending that you can't see why things are racist, it demeans all of us really.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink

I agree that Ann Coulter is a vile individual, and that her remark was intentionally racist. However, I also think that one would have a difficult time making the case that it incites hatred or violence (from the remark that was posted) without referring to prior behavior (and words which were unspoken in this incident). And I expect anyone who advocates prosecuting her for such a remark to be able to show, without a doubt, that the remark was directly intended to incite violence or hatred. Again, I reiterate, it's a difficult case to make. My point was, it's difficult to criminalize the words, "take a camel," and to threaten prosecution of such stupid remarks. Obviously, she was not arrested for the remark, no?

Ann Coulter gets by on saying things that are over the line into indecency, without spilling over into illegality. From a psychological perspective, I believe that it would be alot more effective if most people ignored her inanity, and let her push herself into illegality in her quest for attention. Making her remarks into something they are NOT, that is, DIRECTLY inciting violence and hatred, gives her more power than she's worth or deserves. Don't do the work for her- make her say it!

Moses, I'll be a prat any day I want!

And Captain Obvious? Cunt is an extremely offensive term to women, whether you want to believe it or not.

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink


Rob Monkey, thanks for the compliments, and you rock for your use of the phrase, "it's not rocket surgery." (this is not an insult- I really mean it.)

By SisterMaryLoquacious (not verified) on 26 Mar 2010 #permalink

H.L. Mencken "Freedom of the press is for he who owns one."

Obviously, Coulter, broadcast on some of the most powerful electronic media (And the most conservative)in the world does not have to worry about her "free speech" being limited.

It is the rest of us who do not have access to the very expensive broadcast media nor to the government controlled licenses whose speech is limited. That goes as well for the internet to which anyone can access but which by its nature, unless you have lots of money for promotion, buries the individual speaker in the massive noise.

Conceptually Mencken's comment means that "Freedom of the press" is only for the ruling class, that class that owns the means of production and hence all access to the wealth needed for freedom.

There is a way for that to change, a way opening up once again in the current deepening catastrophic crisis of the economy of the owning, ruling, capitalist class in which the working class and the poor, no longer able to live even in the desperate conditions of "the old way" will, with their mass union organizations and revolutionary party leadership, put an end to private ownership and their private means of production and thus abolish that ruling class and their prostitutes, the Ann Coulters, Rush Limbaughs, and other such, putting the means of speech into the hands of the producers for the first time.

That process is ongoing...


By Jack Jersawitz (not verified) on 27 Mar 2010 #permalink

Typical center-left, pc comments for the most. Sure Coulter is obnoxious and rude, but she often has more than a grain of truth in what she says, no matter how obnoxiously.

But rather than point out what is really inherently wrong with many parts of Western societies today (e.g. the misogony and racisim/bigotry that's inherent in Islam, for example) and discussing it, you choose to ignore the problem, and claim it's "racist" or worse to even broach many topics.

As such, I think the West is generally in decline bc of people like the ones on this panel crying "racism/sexism/whateer-ism and supporting the status quo. You're feel-good pc inane thoughts and arguments usually hold no merit, you see the world via rose-colored glasses, and you are basically self-serving automatons who parrot what the mainstream media and government bodies tell you to think.

Usually this is done to make one feel better about oneself, and to avoid serious discussion and or analytical thoughts which might bring up disturbing questions. So you hold onto your dubious Hollywood-style opions and vaules - which are obviously incredibly shallow and morally bankrupt.

What a sad, twisted joke its all become.

I love Ann Coulter, and agree with her on nearly everything she says. She presents a clear and very logical argument for her serious points, and has a way to very obviously use toung-in-cheek expertly. It is pathetic taht you liberals cant tell the difference. Liberalism is the sole reason taht our nation is accelerating as fast as possible to comlpete ruin, just like great nations before us. Pick up a history book and read something about the Romans, Greeks, even the British. the Japanese are starting to suffer the same thing. But you liberals dont want to do anything so radical as actually dabble in the truth. So nevermind. Stay in your ignorant fantasy world. Forget that I even brought it up.