American commentor Ann Coulter is at the centre of a free speech controversy in Canada. Photo credit Gage SkidmoreTwo lesbians walk into a bar….

This sounds like the beginning of a bad and crude locker room joke, instead it is part of another attempt to shut down free speech in Canada. Just a week after threats and intimidation forced the cancellation of a speech at the University of Ottawa by American commentator Ann Coulter, a hearing is happening on the other side of the country to examine whether the profane ramblings of a stand-up comedian violated the human rights of a lesbian couple.

Wait, that all sounds like a joke, like something out of a sketch sending up politically correct sensibilities. I wish it were so. It also sounds like a very Canadian story, not of much interest elsewhere but consider what is happening here as the Romans should have considered the sacking of forts and towns on the outer edges of their empire, a prelude of things to come. With university speech codes common on American campuses, with lawfare run rampant in Britain and with the United Nations under constant pressure from Muslim states to pass anti-blasphemy resolutions, can anyone truly believe free speech is not under threat.

The case of the comedian goes back to an open stage night at a Vancouver bar where Guy Earle was hosting and introducing aspiring comedians. On that spring night in 2007 Earle admits that he engaged in “a mutually abusive and rude verbal volley” with Lorna Pardy and her then girlfriend. Pardy admits she threw water at Earle, he admits that he broke her sunglasses. None of these actions resulted in criminal proceedings with police laying charges but it has resulted in a 3 year process to have the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal listen to four days of hearings on whether words spoken between a comedian and a heckler constitute a human rights violation.

I won’t treat you to what Earle said, his language and that of Pardy was reportedly vile that night, still it matters not. In a free and democratic society such as Canada, or any modern liberal democracy, do we really need or want governments deciding what words are more hurtful than others, which insults are human rights violations? We are after all talking about crude insults, not threats of violence. Mr. Earle was not Ms. Pardy’s employer, he was not a government agency denying her service, he was a shock comedian hosting a night billed as “edgy” and “cutting.” At all times Pardy was free to leave her drink and the bar, an action I likely would have taken given Earle’s sense of humour. Instead, she stayed and engaged him.

Let me make this point clear, I do not defend a single vile word that Earle uttered in his failed attempts to be funny, his humour or lack of it are not what matters here but rather his right to speak. It is the same with Ann Coulter who arrived in my hometown of Ottawa last week to give a speech. That speech never happened after Left-wing student radicals declared they would not allow their university to have its respect for diversity and openness disturbed by the intolerance of the right-wing political commentator. Irony is lost on students I say.

Coulter, who is as much a satirist as a political columnist, has a long list of controversial things she has said. Taken out of context they all sound extreme, taken in context they are rhetorical flourishes used to make a point that one can agree with or debate. Again, as with Earle, the point isn’t Coulter’s actual chosen words but her right to say them. If Ms. Coulter wants to yell at a Muslim student “Take a camel!” I will defend her right to say it even without knowing the context from where the comments came. Incidentally, knowing the context of the comments – made while the audience heckled a speaker, makes me more likely to defend her right to offend the student. No one has a right not to be offended otherwise the New York Times would hardly print a word beyond the weather forecast.

Ms. Coulter’s troubles could be dismissed as a ruckus caused by students that know not what they do and while true, it does not explain the actions of University of Ottawa Provost, Francois Houle. The Provost, being a kindly host, wrote a letter to Coulter ahead of her appearance in Ottawa informing her that free speech was limited in Canada, she better brush up on the law and watch what she says lest she end up facing prosecution. Houle’s letter warning Coulter to watch her language has been condemned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“Ms. Coulter certainly does raise disturbing questions and provocative challenges. While many of us profoundly disagree with her, a university should welcome controversial speakers and vigorous debate, not seek to restrict discourse or speakers.”

The events of the past few weeks have led to a renewed debate on what constitutes free speech and what, if any, limits should be imposed upon it. I wish that I could be heartened by the calls from the political Left and Right to respect free speech but sadly, I am not. As a radio reporter and eye witness to the shut down of Coulter’s speech in Ottawa I was called on to speak with stations across the country. On station after station there were calls from members of the public for people like Coulter to be banned from the country or from speaking simply because others do not like what they have to say.

Canada’s Senate held a debate on the issue of free speech given the Coulter and Earle cases and while several Senators like former journalist Mike Duffy spoke out in favour of this fundamental freedom, Senator Romeo Dallaire, the man who was in charge of United Nations forces during the Rwandan massacre raised the spectre of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, known in Rwanda as genocide radio for encouraging people to kill their neighbours.

You can see my lack of optimism, not only do students and bureaucrats see satire and bad, unfunny jokes as hate speech deserving of state sanction, an esteemed Senator and former military General who has seen what the worst regimes in the world can do is bringing up genocide to defend the impulse to censor. Yet the urge to censor must be fought, bad ideas allowed to be exposed to the cleansing power of sunshine rather than hidden behind a curtain causing them to become a matter of intrigue.

How many crackpot conspiracy theories have you had related to you with the claim that “the government doesn’t want you to know this.” Banning ideas gives them an attraction, people want to know what is so bad that it is banned, much the way British teens used to snap up records that were “banned on the BBC.” In fact the students in Ottawa trying to make sure no one heard Ann Coulter only succeeded in ensuring even more people heard of her and her ideas. Front-page articles had large photos, editorials were written, the airwaves filled with talk of Coulter and her book sales went from dormant in Canada to stellar.

H.L. Mencken, a scoundrel if ever there was one, once said, “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels.” His point, you don’t need to like someone to defend their freedom, otherwise who will be there to defend yours when the authorities come for you.

Brian Lilley is a political journalist and the Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations Newstalk 1010 Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal. He is also the Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.