Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Anne Coulter and Free Speech

Were Anne Coulter's human rights violated when she her speech at the University of Ottawa was canceled? Some people might say this is a tough question, some people were outraged, but this is really not a tough question and not a matter to be outraged about. It is a question to which we should be reason. Several points:

1. I don't know much about Anne Coulter. I've seen her books in Chapters and the titles never held much appeal to me. I understand she's an American "political pundit" who supported Bush and bills herself as a conservative. Other than that, what I know about her is what I've seen in clips on TV over the years. Fact is this: for a Canadian there are just too many American pundits to pay attention to all of them. We've got enough in Canada; to be  trying to follow the growth industry of American punditry is impossible since there appear to be no qualifications for the job. 

2. I don't think Anne Coulter is a conservative. What I heard on the clips (and, who knows, these might have been jokes), was not conservatism. I know conservatives. I work with them, go to church with them, one of my grandfathers was a conservative. What she said was not conservatism. It was bigotry. Honesty in advertising: I'm not a conservative (if you're read this blog you know that). But conservatism is a legitimate philosophical and political perspective. I have a deep respect for the conservatives I know. They look at the world differently then I do. They believe in organic communities, support the weight of tradition versus individual reason, believe in a balances of estates (the traditional model of Parliament), rather then democracy, support local initiative rather than centralized government, are concerned about modernity (many conservatives I know would be called "backwards" because of their ambiguous views of technology and its affects on culture) and question the effects of commerce on culture. In church, they might hold to a slightly different theology then I. But, they are not bigots. They don't generalize about entire religions nor suggest that individuals should be banned from modes of transport simply because of their religion. Anne Coulter's self-billing, then, strikes me as a misnomer. I think it does a serious disservice to conservatism. 

3. I can't help but feel that Anne Coulter's shtick is a put on. Does anyone other than a few dinosaur's really believe at least what she seemed to be saying on the clips on TV? My guess is that what she is looking for is cheap advertising to sell books. I don't fault her for that. I don't like the way she's going about doing it, but my guess is that she has made her piece with that a long time ago and decided that as long as she made some money from speaking engagements and selling books, she could live with the fact that a bunch of people won't like her. In other words, I doubt that she believes what she is saying. It might be a dangerous discourse (I'd need to know more before I could make a determination on that) and it might be all the worse for its contrived character but my best guess is that it is contrived. 

Because of this, I'd suggest that no one get too worked up about it. If no one gets excited by her insulting Muslims, my guess is that she'll move on to the next thing to try to get a rise -- and the free advertising that goes with it -- out of people. IOW, I think that she got exactly what she wanted when her speech at the U of O was canceled. Far from being a defeat, I'd bet she sees this as a serious victory: she was able to trick a bunch of people into giving her headlines. 

OK, those are the preliminaries. What about her human rights. It seems to me that this is the more important issue because of its wider implications. So, what human rights were violated. I can see two grounds on which one could argue that her human rights were violated. First, her ethnicity: and this is what she seemed to be hinting at in a news story when she asked if any Muslim was treated as poorly as she was. She seems to be suggesting that her speech was canceled owing to her religious or ethnic background. It wasn't. I've been to the U of O, know some faculty who teach there. All kinds of white Christian people speak there every day. I did (an academic paper on Canadian liberalism). I see no ground on which one could argue that the U of O limits the right of speech on the basis of religion or ethnicity. The empirical evidence doesn't seem to be there. Instead, it seems, her speech was canceled because it was viewed as incendiary. So, ground two: was her right to freedom of expression violated.

No. No one has stopped her from talking. Indeed, she seems to enjoy a remarkably high level of access to the press. She has a bunch of books on the shelves in Canadian bookstores. In other words, her ability to communicate her message has not been hampered. She just did not get to give a speech at one place. Does that constitute a limit on freedom of speech.

It can but it depends on the context. The University of Ottawa is a private institution. That means that the people who run that institution do get to make decisions about who can speak at it. This may sound odd but consider an analogy. Atlantic Baptist University is a private institution (like the University of Ottawa it accepts state money but it is a private institution). Imagine that someone decided it would be nifty to have me speak and asked me if I would come up and give a talk. Flattered, I agree. But, then the ABU administration looks into my views -- say, my support for equality of citizens regardless of their sexual orientation -- and cancels my talk. Does the ABU administration have a right do this?

Yes. Because ABU is a private institution. I have the right to my views, I have the right to publicize my views, I have the right associate with others who share my views, but I don't have a right to speak at ABU. Different case: does a church have the right to refuse to allow, say, an advocate of same sex marriage from speaking on that subject in Sunday morning. Could someone who supported same sex marriage just show up and demand to be given time during the sermon? They could not. My hypothetical church is a private institution with the right to control who can speak to it as a body. My hypothetical advocate of same-sex marriage has the right to their views and to publicize their views but they do not have the right to insist that a particular congregation listen to them on Sunday morning. The right to free speech is not a right that requires private institutions to accept any speaker who shows up and wants to say their piece. Private institutions -- say, a family in their own house -- have a right to control their own space as long as they  do not violate the law. (It is obvious but just to write it down, one could not claim that one has a right to, say, organize a terrorist plot because one was in one's own home.) 

This is an important principle, or so it seems to me. Do we want the state regulating private space. Do we want the government forcing the University of Ottawa to accept speakers that that institution does not want? Do we want the government forcing people to let speakers into their homes or their religious institutions? Oddly, this is the argument that someone who believes Anne Coulter has a case on free speech grounds is making. They are making a case for increased state regulation of private space in which those who own or control that space are not allowed to make decisions about it. I'd argue against this view and in defense of the right to private space -- provide laws are not being violated -- and argue that the state should intrude on it as little as possible (provided harm is not done in, which is pretty common sense but I thought I'd put it down just in case anyone mistakes what I'm saying). 

Ah, someone might say, but the U of O contracted Anne Coulter. Doesn't that change things. No. I don't know who contracted Anne Coulter but if it were the U of O, the argument that one needs to make now is: they aren't allowed to change their mind. Again, think in terms of my analogy above. ABU has the right, I am arguing, to change its mind and cancel my talk. That might be disappointing to me but surely we want to extend the maximum level of control that we can within the bounds of the law to private institutions to control their own space. Changing one's mind can be upsetting to, in this case, me but surely people have the right to change their views. Imagine if we didn't! I'd have to believe what I believed when I was, say, 19. Learning would stop. 

I do think Anne Coulter is owed something. If the University of Ottawa contracted her -- again, I don't know that they did -- they owe her the price of their contract. They can change their mind and cancel her talk but if that does not mean that they don't still have obligations. A contract is a legally binding agreement and from what I can tell Coulter was willing to fulfill her side of the deal. The U of O changed its mind and fair enough but one if one unilaterally changes one's mind one still owes the other party the amount agreed upon in that contract. If I contracted Bob to shovel my driveway for $10 and Bob showed up after a snowfall to do it, and can't say "sorry Bob, changed my mind, go home." Or, rather I can do that but because the contract is legally binding, I still owe him $10. Same principle applies. So, what is Anne Coulter owed: the terms of her contract. Beyond this, she doesn't have a case. 

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