Irwin Cotler, 44 years later (National Post March 5, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Like most columnists following Muslim censorship-by-proxy offensives against Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, I've been seeking that coveted original angle on the well-trodden ground of Human Rights Tribunal excesses. Then the other day a news item caught my eye, and Memory Lane beckoned ?

Following changes in administrative policy, McGill University under-grads will vote this week on whether to continue financing the 97-year-old McGill Daily with the existing fee of $5 per undergrad per semester. A referendum No vote could force closure of one of the Commonwealth's oldest college newspaper.

Perhaps it's time for a second, motivational reunion of alumni luminaries. In 1996, 200 ex-staffers of the Daily, many still active journalists today, congregated at a Montreal hotel to share the remembered thrill of lavishing their rhetorical exorbitance onto the Daily's receptive pages.

Alumnus Charles Krauthammer didn't attend, but career-long left-wing activist Judy Rebick did: "The Daily was the most defining experience of my life ? When I joined The Daily, I got radicalized." So did controversial writer Jan Wong, who recollected being a very "lowly" staffer, "more interested in taking over the [presidency of the] Chinese Students' Society," (which she accomplished in 1974, campaigning in Mao suits).

I never wrote for the Daily during my McGill grad years (1964-66). Apolitical then, and a new bride, I was more focused on man-pleasing recipes and my studies (in that order, if memory serves). While I cooked and read novels without a care in the world as to where my graduate degree might lead, my husband Ronny prepared to make an actual living for us both via McGill's then-nascent MBA program.

To this day, the words "McGill Daily" provoke a Pavlovian fit of indignation in my husband; and patience to the interlocutor who utters them, for he will be subjected to the following "tale of the ancient muckraker."

Ronny was elected to the McGill Students Council to represent the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in -- according to a brittle, yellowed copy of the November 26, 1964 McGill Daily -- "what proved to be the closest race of the day." He was given the portfolio of Director of McGill Publications, which included supervision of the Daily.

Never can any student editor and his "minister" have been at more dialectically opposed poles than then-Daily editor Patrick MacFadden and Ronny Kay. To characterize any Daily editor as left wing is tautological, but militant Irish firebrand MacFadden, ten years older than the average student, was considered more or less a card-carrying Communist. Ronny, on the other hand, whose Russian heritage had opened a privileged window on the realities of Soviet triumphal-ism, was a Reagan-style "evil-empirist" avant la lettre.

What forced their inevitable collision was MacFadden's refusal to confine his ideology to the editorial page. Under MacFadden, the entire Daily was one long diatribe against capitalism and the United States, every news item a springboard to further Marxist agitprop.

Ronny warned MacFadden several times that he was flirting with dismissal from his post. MacFadden flipped him the bird by posting on his bulletin board for all to see a cartoon figure of a goofy Chinese stereotype -- bucktoothed, slit-eyed, pigtailed and coolie-hatted -- with a screw through his head, captioned "Ronny Kay" (Ronny is Caucasian, but was born in China.)

Ronny recommended firing Mac-Fadden for inappropriate use of his position, and Council agreed. But in a surprise deus ex machina move, a former Daily editor -- a certain law student named Irwin Cotler -- intervened as a kind of "amicus Mac-Faddeni" to address the Council.

With what was later to become known throughout the world as his trademark rhetorical brilliance, this Cotler fellow's passionate defence of freedom of speech reversed the consensus, and MacFadden was invited to continue his quotidian (unopposed and subsidized) anti-Western, Marxist crusade.

Since this Cotler fellow and Ronny were good friends, Ronny was naturally chagrined at the unexpected outcome. But he knew it wasn't personal: Freedom of speech, however offensive to others, was such a compelling principle for Irwin that it overrode other considerations.

Over the years, however, Cotler's position on censorship transformed: As a law professor, he became a world-renowned advocate of hate-speech laws. Not all forms of expression, he came to believe, are eligible for the same protection as were enjoyed by MacFadden's poisonous rants.

But with Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant pinioned by censorship's ugly talons, I am asking Mr. Cotler to reconsider his stance, once more. Perhaps he remembers those glorious, principled words he uttered on behalf of an anti-American bigot 44 years ago.

A member of Cotler's Liberal caucus -- Keith Martin -- has put forward a private member's bill to strip human rights mandarins of their ability to impose politically correct speech codes on the country. Stephane Dion and the rest of the Liberals will be looking to Mr. Cotler for his opinion and moral guidance. What's it going to be, professor? To borrow a line from the poet Shelley, was your youthful passion for freedom of speech "a love so pure it could not last"?