March 25, 2010

Ann Coulter and free speech? Hardly, by: Ozlem Sensoy, The Vancouver Sun, March 25, 2010,



On Tuesday, a speech by controversial American Ann Coulter at the University of Ottawa was cancelled because of fears there might be physical violence.

One of the arguments I've heard over and over about the cancellation is the "free speech" argument: Coulter has the right to say whatever she wants. This, her supporters argue, is what free speech means and what Coulter is being denied.


What people who launch the charge of "free speech" (and other charges such as "anti-democratic", "censorship" and "lighten up, it's just entertainment") fail to acknowledge and understand is the social concept of power.

Sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, classism and anti-semitism are not about individual acts of discrimination (what some conservative commentator might have specifically said to offend someone or some group). These terms do not primarily refer to acts of discrimination (expressions of prejudices like Coulter's). They refer to systems of privilege that "normalize" a particular way of talking about and thinking about particular groups of people in society.

That is why Coulter's speech is not just "free" (i. e. bias-free, objectively sent out into the atmosphere). The effects of her speech when launched into public space are not simply situational. They are another series of burps in the historical and existing framework that has normalized a particular way of thinking about Muslims, gays and lesbians, and other marginalized groups.

That is why scholars of race relations and critical feminists would argue that so-called reverse-racism or reverse-sexism do not exist. Because of this difference, individual speech acts have different consequences in the social world.

A useful example is that of the electoral franchise for (white) women in North America. While women had to agitate for the right to vote and could certainly be angry with men during that period and perhaps even launch angry and hateful speech at men, women could not grant themselves the right to vote. Only men could grant suffrage because only men held the institutional positions to do so. Hence, while both groups could be prejudiced against the other, only men's prejudice against women was backed by institutional power, creating a significant difference in the impact.

The "isms" words (racism, sexism, anti-semitism) refer to power relationships that are historic and embedded, and these relationships do not flip back and forth. The same groups that have historically held power in the U.S. 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 Coulter's "speech" upheld).

In a parallel way, while "left wing" voices might not receive the kind of caution that Coulter did from Francois Houle, the vice-president academic and provost of the University of Ottawa, to be aware of Canada's hate speech laws, it doesn't matter: The effect of Coulter's speech is not the same as the effect of marginalized speech.

So is "reverse" free speech at issue here? Is Coulter the victim of censorship? Are all expressions defensible as free speech?

If freedom of speech means anyone can say or print whatever they want, why was James Frey famously fried for embellishing about his own life in his Oprah's Book Club selection? Why was the issue there "lying" and not "freedom of speech?"

Not long ago, I remember a lot of hullabaloo in the news about some unkind TV ads about Stephane Dion and puffin poop. I don't remember that incident framed as an issue of free speech. Those were rightly characterized as "attack" ads. No one I heard dared defend the Conservative party's right to free speech.

There is also a type of context-appropriate speech. For example, the morning baby-talk I know many of you use when chatting with your kitty-witty or puppy-wuppy would probably be inappropriate at a job interview or with friends at the pub.

The point is, we live with these types of speech limitations every day, limitations governed by social norms. When the "free speech" card is played (by those whose speech aligns with power structures, like Coulter), it is a defensive response to their perspectives and power being challenged. The "free speech" discourse protects power and privilege by acting as a shield against such challenges. If you dare challenge free speech as a normal social value, you dare challenge the founding ideals of Western-style democracy.

Perhaps we should have a discussion about the degree to which we experience and foster "free speech" in the West.

Whether it's humorous "jokes" about Muslims taking flying carpets instead of airplanes, or "real" remarks calling for the deaths of abortion doctors and condemning gays and lesbians, all speech is not free, neutral and deserving of utterance. You can't just say whatever the hell you want.

University of Ottawa students embody the spirit of student activism. Thank you, students.

Ozlem Sensoy is assistant professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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