Halfway through the talk, Mr. Woodworth was shut down by protesters carrying a variety of signs and shouting. I tried to get them to stop, saying (roughly) that I was on their side, that I've been a pro-choice activist for years and was responsible for the pro-choice posters that were, for many years, displayed in local buses here in K-W. But the whole point of having a university is so all kinds of ideas, controversial or not, can be debated. And free speech is a core value in a democratic society, so they should let Mr. Woodworth make his points and save their questions for the end. But my view didn't carry the day.
Unfortunately, the protesters won their cheap victory in this little skirmish. After a few minutes of their antics, the student anti-abortion group that sponsored the talk called for a 15-minute recess and started dismantling the microphone. At that point, a real dialogue began between Mr. Woodworth and some of the protesters, so the event wasn't entirely a loss. We got to hear Mr. Woodworth refuse once again to admit that outlawing abortion is his real goal. But the shutdown of his speech is yet another bad day for Waterloo, a campus that has a history of being intolerant of many forms of controversial speech, from the administration's censorship of computer newsgroups and information about the Karla Homolka case, to the administration's removal of student newspapers, to protesters that shut down a talk by Christine Blatchford.
Fifteen years ago, the pro-choice posters that our group put up in local buses were relentlessly vandalized by the anti-abortion side. Our posters said, "You have three choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy: parenting, abortion, adoption". Anti-abortion vigilantes crossed out abortion, or defaced the posters with "abortion is murder", or just stole the expensive plastic placards and discarded them. But how can I have the ethical high ground to object to that, if I don't defend Mr. Woodworth's right to speak on the other side?
It can feel morally satisfying to say that you are protesting "against oppression", or "for women's rights" or that Mr. Woodworth's presence on campus "makes me feel threatened". Maybe all that's true. But how does it give you the right to prevent someone from speaking?
Some people rationalized the protest by saying that Woodworth, as an MP, has plenty of chances to make his views known, so the protest wasn't an important infringement of his right to speak. Maybe so. But how about my right to listen? On what basis do the protesters get to quash that?
I'm not going to rehash all the arguments in favor of free speech here. If you're interested, I strongly recommend Rodney Smolla's Free Speech in an Open Society, an excellent discussion of free speech and its limits.
Maybe the protesters perceive that they've won a little victory with their actions. In reality, they lost. Jerry Rubin-style political theater just plays into the hands of right-wing politicians. Now Mr. Woodworth will be able to play the martyr; people who agree with him will sigh and mutter darkly about how the Left is always intolerant. Mr. Woodworth compared the protesters to fascists. He'll gain sympathy points from many people who are undecided.
By shutting down Mr. Woodworth, the protesters implicitly say, "Mr. Woodworth's ideas are simply too powerful for us to counter with our own. We are unable to battle him in the marketplace of ideas, so we act this way instead." Have a little faith in democracy! Woodworth's Motion 312 failed 203-91; even 74 MP's in his own party weren't fooled and voted against it.
If protesters objected to Mr. Woodworth's views, they could have protested quietly, or scheduled their own parallel event, or stuck around to ask really hard questions at the end. (Some did. Bravo for them.) Heck, I don't begrudge a good heckle, boo, or shout-out from the audience once in a while. But protesting so intrusively that the speech couldn't go on is way over the line.
The protesters also could organize to vote Mr. Woodworth out of office in the next election. Now that I'd like to see!
By behaving the way they did, though, the protesters discredited themselves and gave the University's reputation yet another black eye.