Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Good for Ann Coulter, Who Challenges Canada on Free Speech

UPDATE -- As a crowd of angry protesters gathered, Coulter's speech Tuesday night at the University of Ottawa was canceled for security reasons. Link.

Yay for Ann Coulter, who rushed the net and slammed the ball right into the prissy noggin of a Canadian university apparatchik who had pompously warned her about Canada's limited free-speech protections, in advance of several speeches she had planned at Canadian universities.

Speech that offends anyone is a hate crime, Francois Houle, the provost of the University of Ottawa, informed Coulter in a hilariously misguided e-mail to her (text also below). And, he warned grandly, "promoting hatred against any identifiable group" (Say what? This includes the Nazis? The Khmer Rouge? The Chamber of Commerce?) is an offense that "could lead to criminal charges."

Coulter's response, in effect: Yo, I got your hate crime right here, pal.

Brilliantly, I thought, Coulter said she will be filing a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, arbiter of offense, in which she will allege that she herself is a victim of hate speech by the Canadian bureaucrat. Besides doing what she is best known for, which is right-wiung insult-comedy shtick, Coulter is also a pretty smart lawyer.

Francois Houle, by the way, describes himself as having research specialties in (gwak! as my parrot would say) "multiculturalism and citizenship" on his university bio.

A columnist for the terribly correct Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail ("Jane Taber and the Globe's Parliamentary Bureau Set the Agenda," the column hed proclaims) appeared to miss the point about freedom of speech because of her disdain for the likes of Coulter. As to Provost Houle's e-mail warning to watch what you say, "the letter was leaked to National Post, which is considered friendly to the hard-right conservative cause," the Globe and Mail's setter of parliamentary agendas sniffed portentously.

Those of us on all points of the ideological spectrum (and some of us occupying multiple points, depending) who have been subject to legal action in foreign countries for speech that is utterly and without doubt protected by the U.S. Constitution welcome the irrepressible Coulter to the club. For years, certain countries -- most especially Britain, but including others -- have allowed foreign plaintiffs to win libel and defamation suits against Americans in foreign courts, for speech published or made by those Americans in the U.S. that in no way would be considered libelous in any U.S. court.

The Coulter case is a bit different. Houle's warning concerned speech that he presumed would be uttered in Canada, not the United States. But it underscores the growing threat not only to Americans' presumption of free speech in democratic nations, but also our guarantees of free speech in the U.S.

{The National Post newspaper in Canada reported that Coulter's filing of a complaint there could be more than a good joke. "Even though Coulter is not a Canadian citizen, Levant [a Canadian human rights legal expert] said it would not be “outlandish” for Coulter to file a complaint against the University of Ottawa, especially in light of [a 1985 case that is] considered a leading constitutional decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, [which] said that foreign nationals are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."}

Meanwhile, there is another prominent case in Canada in which a U.S. author, Paul Williams, was sued for defamation by another Canadian university for reporting he published in the U.S. about a Jihadist terrorist cell's activities within that university. No one has said Williams' reporting was wrong. Just that he was insensitive to a Canadian institution. Needless to say, a libel suit saying someone is "insensitive" to some university would be laughed out of any U.S. court.

But being sued in a foreign country has its costs. The last time I talked with Williams, he told me he and his wife had spent over $100,000 on legal fees in his defense.

The most famous foreign libel-abuse case involves Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York author and scholar who lost a libel suit in a British court, filed by a Saudi billionaire who was mentioned in her book on the financing of terrorism, "Funding Evil." Again, no one except the aggrieved plaintiff, a known terrorism financier, has disputed the accuracy of Ehrenfeld's well-researched account. And what she wrote would never have been considered libelous in a U.S. court.

Here's a recent op-ed piece by Dr. Ehrenfeld in the Guardian newspaper in Britain, along with related links on the Web site of the American Center for Democracy.

And here's a smart piece in the Huffington Post on the wider implications (including my case) by Judy Platt of the Association of American Publishers.

Here is some background on my case, from Townhall.com via the International Free Press Society.

And here's an opinion piece about libel tourism in Germany, though the article lacks scope and nuance and seems to credit Britain with an honest reform movement that no one I know seems to recognize.

The Ehrenfeld verdict turned on an asinine notion, promulgated by the notorious Justice Eady of the infamous British High Court, that something published in the U.S. (a mere 23 copies of the Ehrenfeld book found their way to Britain) can constitute actionable injury under the detestable British libel laws (which are tailor-made for plaintiffs, in that their complaints are judged valid unless the defendant conclusively proves otherwise in the British court)-- mainly because said book's assertions are readily available in Britain on the Internet. Not only that, but the tort is as perpetual and eternal as the Internet itself, the British court held.

Dr. Ehrenfeld is the leader in the fight against this kind of offense to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. Her case prompted New York State to adopt a so-called Free Speech Protection Act, which prohibits any enforcement in New York of a foreign libel judgment involving speech by an American citizen that is fully protected under the First Amendment.

About a dozen states have passed or are in the process of passing similar laws. An important federal bill, the Free Speech Protection Act, with similar provisions, introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter, is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I watched the Judiciary Committee hearing on that bill last month and was somewhat dismayed, by the way. The committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, gave lip service to the bill, but several committee members, such as Sen. Al Franken, who is supposedly a smart fellow, seemed to miss the point of the threat entirely.

The only committee member who seemed to get it fully was Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who zeroed in on the overriding issues with great alacrity. [Hey, Sen. Kyl: I'm an Arizonan and my case in Brazil is a real gem. Why haven't you responded to my letter and e-mails?]

Incidentally, the two friendly witnesses at the hearing made a tactical mistake in allowing the focus to remain exclusively on the UK, where British politicians dismayed by recent bad publicity in the London Times and elsewhere have said (said) they will support reforms of Britain's inexcusable libel laws. That was months ago. Nothing has happened.

The threat is wider than just in Britain, and it is not just directed at writers, journalists, bloggers and provocateurs on the speakers' circuits. As this precedent spreads, any foreign country can reach into the U.S. to intimidate and try to silence any American who says or writes anything that is not liked by that foreign government, or one of its citizens, or someone just visiting that country, such as the Saudi citizen who sued Rachel Ehrenfeld in the UK.

Such legal actions can be brought (and have been) against academic researchers, including medical scholars writing in respected journals. Travel reviewers are also at risk. As are online kibitzers and even casual users of social-networking sites. North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen .. any country in the world could theoretically try to stifle free speech within the United States or, as in the Coulter case, prevent Americans from expressing their own opinions when abroad.

I hope the federal bill on foreign libel judgments can be shaken loose from committee and voted into law. And I trust that the Arizona bill, which passed the Arizona house by a vote of 30 to 0 recently, can be moved more expeditiously through the Arizona House, where momentum seems to have been lost. There are at least three Arizona residents who are affected by spurious foreign libel threats, and there are likely to be more as this threat spreads internatonally.

Meanwhile, those of us fighting this fight welcome Coulter into the tent. In the Coulter case, Americans need to become aware of the threat posed by friendly foreign governments with laws that allow any aggrieved person, or prim bureaucrat, to smother free speech when it causes offense to anyone who claims to be offended, including an institution (or, in my case, an entire country). In the foreign libel cases, much more attention needs to be paid to a serious and pernicious threat to free speech in the United States.


Here is the full text of the letter from the University of Ottawa bureaucrat to Ann Coulter, published yesterday in the National Post newspaper of Canada:

"Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus and hope that they will contribute positively to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a great university campus. We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, as well as on our campus, and view it as a fundamental freedom, as recognized by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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.

There is a strong tradition in Canada, including at this university, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions and urge you to respect that Canadian tradition while on our campus. Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.


Francois Houle,

Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa"


[UPDATE: Note comment below that anyone who says "good for Ann Coulter needs to see a therapist ASAP." I'm sure it was made lightly, but those who would shut down free speech, always on the ground that the offending speech "goes too far" or is "insensitive" or "angry," often fall back on the facile language of commercial therapy. The fact is, the only remedy for free speech that you don't like is more free speech. Your "crazy" might be my satiric relief. Within the well-defined bounds of libel and defamation in the United States, I'm an absolutist on the issue of freedom of speech. I wish more of my media colleagues were as well.]




quinn said...

This seems somewhat odd to argue to me because one of the chief problems of libel tourism is that it infringes on state sovereignty over its own borders (usually U.S. sovereignty). Canada might come to a different conclusion on hate speech than the U.S. - and indeed, it already has, both legally and culturally. There is a danger in advocating a very American free speech position in Canada without recognition of this difference in tradition, as I've found from personal discussions, though I still generally hold that government shouldn't be regulating speech. And it's problematic if the push to have a less restricted view of speech comes primarily from Americans, especially in the present Canadian political climate.

I find the criticism of the person from the University of Ottawa somewhat odd because the primary of the purpose of the letter seems to be to remind Ann Coulter what the laws in Canada are - and, for her, that's something she might want to consider, since she often does promote hate speech (for example, against Muslims). This individual's support for the law in the letter doesn't really make that much of a difference in what would actually happen if she spoke...except in aggravating people who dislike restrictions on speech and being generally somewhat patronizing. The real issue is Canada's political and legal institutions, not some schmuck at UOttawa. And such institutions must change from within.

I am also skeptical of using Coulter as an ally because she seems to be placing this issue within a "victimized Right" discourse - and, to me, the Right is anything but. I wouldn't want others to buy into that load of crock.

Tony Kondaks said...

Take a look at the following video.

If this was said in Canada and was said by conservative Ann Coulter rather than liberal Bill Maher, does anyone doubt Coulter would be up on charges of hate speech?


libhom said...

Anybody who says "Good for Ann Coulter" needs to see a therapist ASAP.

Bill Hough said...

I agree with Mr. Sharkey on this one. Freedom of speech should be absolute, and not dependent on which side of the political spectrum you reside.

Anonymous said...

I think the University of Ottawa guy was in a tough spot. He's been damned for sending the letter. What if he didn't send the letter and Ms. Coulter was sued? The most important thing to the lovely Ms. Coulter is publicity and she's generated it.

Mister G said...

Absolutist on the issue of free speech most definitely. Anyone who would say otherwise is an ideologue and not a free thinker.