Francois Houle, provost of the University of Ottawa, is the new poster boy for academic dingbat of the year.
His ill-advised letter to American conservative commentator Ann Coulter, advising her to watch what she was planning to say at a campus speaking engagement, not only embarrassed his university, it should cause all academic administrators to question just how strongly they embrace academic freedom. Is it something easily sacrificed if the opinion is unpopular or one they don't like?
Coulter, of course, is one of those hypocrites who say nasty things about Muslims and other minorities, then claim it was all just playful fun. She's the American version of Mark Steyn. The best thing that can happen is to allow her to talk in public, where the full ridiculousness of her bigotry can be exposed and challenged. The worst thing is to make her a martyr to political correctness and chicken-hearted censorship.
That's exactly what Houle's letter did. By framing her as a moral outlaw, and more or less threatening to have the thought police out in force, he gave encouragement to the protesting students who prevented her from speaking at all. He handed Coulter all that she ever wants -- cheap publicity -- and something that she seldom achieves -- the moral high ground.
The second ranking academic administrator of the U of O also slipped up badly on his law. Canadian jurists have consistently ruled that we live in a free country where people have as much right to express outrageous and ridiculous opinions as moderate ones. Commentators like Coulter are under no obligation to weigh their words, as Houle urged her to do, "with respect and civility." (Sun Media legal columnist Alan Shanoff wrote a withering criticism of Houle's inaccuracies here).
I consider myself a staunch defender of freedom of expression and academic freedom. Universities, especially, should be places where strong ideas are exchanged and debated. Knowledge -- and universities are in the business of creating knowledge -- is often the product of outrageous notions clashing with conventional wisdom.
But the battle of ideas must be fought on a level playing field. When one side seizes the moral high ground, as Houle did in his letter to Coulter, it subverts freedom of expression in a chilling way. It is equivalent to Maclean's magazine using its position as Canada's only weekly news magazine to pillory Muslims as bloodthirsty terrorists who hate the West. It shuts out any other view and prevents any useful exchange of views.
We should all stand up for the free expression of strong opinions, especially if we disagree with them. That's a lesson I hope Francois Houle has learned from this.