The MP for Edmonton Griesbach, Kerry Diotte, is suing the University of Alberta’s student magazine, The Gateway. The lawsuit is in response to two Gateway articles that Diotte claims make defamatory comments about him.

The Varsity firmly stands in support of The Gateway’s right to freedom of expression and unequivocally calls on Diotte to drop this unnecessary lawsuit.

The Gateway’s criticisms

The claim alleges that on November 2, The Gateway published an article criticizing the University of Alberta Students’ Union’s President, Reed Larsen, for posting a photo on social media with Diotte. This article, included in full in the claim, stated that Diotte “has a history of making racist remarks,” and further contended that Diotte supported white nationalist Faith Goldy in her recent bid to be Toronto’s mayor.

A November 5 editorial from the publication, also included in full in the claim, echoed the criticism of Larsen and repeated the sentiments about Diotte’s apparent beliefs and affiliations.

On November 15, The Gateway retracted statements from both pieces and issued apologies at the top of both articles, after the publication “was contacted by a representative of Mr. Diotte, who provided information indicating that the comments were untrue.”

A statement of claim from Diotte, suing The Gateway for defamation, came four days later, asserting that the entirety of both articles is defamatory. In a post on social media, Diotte claimed that The Gateway failed “to fully retract and apologize for its damaging articles.”

Diotte’s history of racial insensitivity

First and foremost, The Varsity believes that The Gateway had reason to highlight Diotte’s history of racial insensitivity. In 2016, Diotte tweeted — and later apologized for — a “Liberal Buzz Word Bingo” card, which included the words “Syrians” and “indigenous.”

Diotte has publicly associated with white nationalist Faith Goldy, posting a photo with her on Twitter in February 2017. He also praised her, saying that she was “Making the Media Great Again.” This was only weeks after Goldy spread false, anti-Muslim conspiracy theories about the January 2017 Québec City mosque shooting that claimed six lives.

In August 2017, Goldy was fired from her job as a commentator with far-right The Rebel Media after she appeared on a neo-Nazi affiliated podcast in the wake of the violent Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. She has advocated for the white supremacist conspiracy theory that warns of a white genocide. She has also uttered the Fourteen Words, a white supremacist creed.

Here in Toronto, we are aware firsthand of the threat that politicians like Goldy pose to a culturally diverse city, especially given her third-place finish as mayor. It is crucial that the press scrutinize Goldy and all those who choose to associate with her.

For Diotte to respond to The Gateway’s claims and defend the decision to commence his lawsuit by asserting that his “grandmother was an Indigenous woman and [his] family has been on the receiving end of deplorable racist comments” is therefore deeply concerning. It is possible to be both a victim and perpetrator of racism. Rather than take responsibility for his past actions, Diotte chose to deflect and make himself the victim.

By exploiting Indigenous identity a deeply sensitive subject given the history and ongoing reality of colonialism in Canada — he only further demonstrated the racial insensitivity that The Gateway had exposed.

Freedom of the student press

Aside from discussion about the legitimacy of The Gateway’s claims, The Varsity believes that retracting certain statements in order to appease Diotte’s grievances was sufficient. Yet Diotte proceeded with the lawsuit for $150,000 in damages — likely enough to financially devastate the independent student publication.

We concur with the Canadian University Press (CUP) that Diotte’s response is disproportionate and exceeds an intention to protect his own reputation. It reflects an attempt to silence criticism.

As noted by CUP, Diotte appears to be pursuing a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP), which aims to silence critics by burdening them with expensive legal costs to the point of abandonment of their criticism. In Ontario, anti-SLAPP legislation exists to protect publications like The Gateway from lawsuits like Diotte’s.

Given his capacity as an MP, this is a clear abrogation of the freedom of the press. Journalists and media organizations across Canada should be concerned and offer their support to The Gateway.

To be specific, however, this is not simply an attack on the freedom of the press: it is an attack on the freedom of the student press. This distinction is important. Diotte’s actions reflect a general tendency for institutions in this country to disrespect student media. Consider the power dynamic that underlies his lawsuit: an elected representative of the Government of Canada is bullying a paper run by undergraduate students.

U of T is no exception when it comes to condescension toward student media. For example, in August, U of T’s media relations office rejected a media request from the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, on the basis that it was unable to accommodate “requests with student media other than our own.”

That student papers are classified as “student media,” rather than just media, ignores the fact that the voices of students — arguably the most important political constituency in the country — are channeled through these papers. The Gateway, for example, is the primary platform for the students of the University of Alberta.

Furthermore, student papers cover stories that bigger outlets tend to overlook. It is we who hold powerful university administrations — with multi-million, sometimes multi-billion-dollar budgets — accountable. In sum, the student press matters.

Diotte’s treatment of The Gateway is a reflection of a broader problematic attitude toward the student press that must be addressed. If he succeeds, he will severely compromise the ability of University of Alberta students to hold institutions accountable, keep readers informed about university affairs, and realize their dreams to become professional journalists.

The Gateway: we stand with you

Diotte’s lawsuit is setting a dangerous precedent. If it proceeds, other powerful politicians across Canada might feel emboldened to do the same to other student papers. For The Varsity, opposing Diotte’s action is as much a matter of self-interest as it is of solidarity.

Like many other conservatives, Diotte claims to be a “defender of free speech.” This is especially the case when it comes to university campuses. Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, even pledged to pull federal funding for universities that fail to uphold free speech. Here in Ontario, Progressive Conservative premier Doug Ford echoed and implemented this pledge, requiring universities to produce free speech policies by the start of 2019.

We call on conservatives across Canada to recognize that an independent, free press that can criticize government without fear of repercussion is at the heart of the definition of free speech. We call on Scheer to communicate this fact to Diotte, his party member, and demand that Diotte drop his lawsuit if his campus free speech pledge is to have any legitimacy at all.

We call on governments across Canada to implement anti-SLAPP laws, if they haven’t already done so, to ensure that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are protected against lawsuits from powerful politicians.

We call on Canadian society and institutions to stop mistreating the student press as a body that can be disrespected, bullied, and destroyed, or viewed as lesser than the ‘real’ press. We are the real press. Our work matters.

We call on Diotte to drop his lawsuit. To The Gateway: we stand with you.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

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