VP Of 'Students For Free Speech' Sues Critic For (Among Other Things) Calling Him A 'Free Speech Asshole'

from the free-speech-for-me,-not-for-thee dept

What is it with these Canadian “free speech defenders” suing their critics for their free speech? We’ve already covered the ridiculous lawsuits by Jordan Peterson and Gavin McInnes against some of their critics, and now we can add a lawsuit by Michele Di Franco, whose Twitter profile notes that he is the “VP Finance” for the “uOttawa Students for Free Speech” club.

You would think that, as such, Di Franco would recognize that others’ free speech might sometimes reflect negatively on him, and be able to take it. But, nope. In January, Michael Bueckert wrote an article on Medium discussing how Doug Ford’s government did not appear to consult many actual students in forming a plan to defund many student organizations at universities. Bueckert’s article notes that it appears the only students who were consulted were the University of Ottawa Free Speech club, based on a roundtable it held that Doug Ford attended. Bueckert had some significant concerns about this, noting that (1) a club like that is not representatives of students and (2) Di Franco appeared to regularly associate with various individuals and groups whose focus was often on supporting the right to spew bigotry on campus. Bueckert tweeted out his article a bunch, often referring to the “alt-right” and in one case talking about “free speech assholes who are freely giving these white supremacists a paid platform.”

Di Franco lawyered up, sending a threatening cease and desist, demanding that Bueckert take down the post, stop referring to Di Franco as anything remotely connected to bigotry or the alt-right, provide a written apology and retraction, and pay $2,000 to the lawyers. Bueckert hired some lawyers of his own to respond. It’s a good response:

I have had an opportunity to review your client?s claims. It appears as though there has been a misunderstanding. My client formulated his opinion that your client?s politics and the political values of his organization are fairly described as ?alt-right? or sympathetic to the alt-right on the basis of your client?s repeated promotion and endorsement of various public commentators, politicians and other personalities that openly espouse either far-right or alt-right views and are generally regarded as representing or associated with the alt-right, despite their personal rejection of that label. These individuals include Gavin McInnes, Janice Fiamengo, Jordan Peterson, Tim Moan, Joseph Watson, Steven Crowder, Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, James Damore, and Maxime Bernier, among others.

Your client has never made any public attempt to disassociate himself with the discriminatory views espoused by these commentators. The only information available has led my client to fairly infer that your client endorses the express and implicitly discriminatory views of these individuals.

Indeed, the response letter includes nine different examples of Di Franco expressing ideological alignment with people in that list, and notes that even denying being a member of the alt-right has become something of a cliche among those who most of the rest of the world consider in their opinion to be members of the alt-right.

And, of course, in response to all of this, Di Franco sued Bueckert for defamation. Among the claims in the lawsuit, it says that merely calling Di Franco a “free speech asshole” is defamatory. Really.

This lawsuit would be laughed out of a US court. First of all, nearly all of the statements are clearly ones of opinion. Second, many of them (including the “free speech asshole” one) are from tweets that don’t even mention Di Franco, but are talking about the types of people that Di Franco has associated with. And, yes, it’s not fun at all being called an asshole or a bigot or whatever, but if you’re really going to be out there claiming to be in favor of “free speech,” then you kinda have to suck it up when people say their not-so-nice opinions about you. Otherwise, it does kind of make you a free speech hypocrite, and quite possibly — in my opinion — a “free speech asshole.”

Since this is Canada, rather than the US, defamation law is not quite as clear-cut — though hopefully Bueckert still wins. It is true that the bar for defamation is much lower in Canada than in the US, but “fair comment” remains a defense against defamation, and that includes stating opinions about matters of public interest. Moreover, the province of Ontario (where the lawsuit was filed) has a pretty good anti-SLAPP law (stronger than the anti-SLAPP laws of some US states) that will likely be the first line of defense and, hopefully, will get this case tossed out quickly with Di Franco on the hook for Bueckert’s legal fees.

Of course, as we see every time one of these situations shows up, supporters of those suing suddenly start twisting themselves into amazing yoga postures trying to “defend” suing people for their opinions. Among them is Jonathan Kay, former opinion writer at Canada’s National Post and now an editor of Quillette. Kay has managed to rise above some popular free speech bad-takes in the past: though he’s seriously concerned about “mob-based” censorship of conservative ideas, he correctly recognizes that Trump is a more direct threat to true free speech, and though he’s seriously concerned about social media censorship, he correctly notes that private platforms can kick off whoever they like. But when it comes to the use of libel lawsuits to silence critics, he appears to be going with the angle that freedom of speech isn’t relevant to civil actions, and that it’s wrong to think a dubious libel lawsuit reflects on someone’s commitment to free speech:

Alas, I imagine that, as with the other cases mentioned earlier, those who align in viewpoints with Di Franco and others will continue to twist themselves around in trying to justify this use of the government to silence a critic, while at the same time pretending to still support “free speech.” But, just to be clear: suing other people for saying their mean opinions about you is not supporting free speech. It is very much anti-free speech and, again in my opinion, kinda makes you an asshole.

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Comments on “VP Of 'Students For Free Speech' Sues Critic For (Among Other Things) Calling Him A 'Free Speech Asshole'”

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104 Comments
btr1701 (profile) says:

I don’t know a lot of the people on that list of ‘alt-righters’ provided by Bueckert’s lawyer, but I have watched a lot of Steven Crowder’s videos because he’s quite entertaining and have never seen one where he’s expressed ‘discriminatory views’. He does rile up a lot of leftist college kids by going to their campuses and putting them on the spot to explain their politics more elaborately than just shouted slogans and regurgitated talking points, and since they usually have no ability to do so, it embarrasses them and pisses them off.

But that’s not discriminatory, nor do I see how that makes him ‘alt-right’. And since those labels have been poorly applied to Crowder here, it makes me wonder how many other people on that list that I’m not familiar with have also been purposely mislabeled.

(Unless we’ve reached the point where merely being anything other than leftist or ‘progressive’ is considered both de facto discriminatory and ‘alt-right’, in which case the whole thing is just a bunch of steaming bullshit.)

TFG says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And that, of course, is the whole point. If it’s not libel, then the case is pointless, and only serves as someone trying to suppress speech they don’t like.

Regardless of what you think of Di Franco and his views, he is currently actively engaging in attempts to suppress speech, which is why he’s got this article written about him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Unless we’ve reached the point where merely being anything other than leftist or ‘progressive’ is considered both de facto discriminatory

What do you mean by that? Applying labels to people based on their political views is discriminatory by definition, but it’s not in any way illegal discrimination.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Steven Crowder comes into that distinction based on a variety of activities, id assume. Critisims of the Alt-Right lie at its association with White Supremacy and movements which are anti-feminist (by which i mean everything from claiming feminism is no longer necessary all the way to claiming we need to roll back feminist advances to pre-1900s) Looking at his actions and associations lead some to consider him at least sympathetic. His association with Prager University, a youtube channel which is seen as supporting the alt right by claiming the alt right is intellectually superior, is one such activity even if his video was on socialism.

The source image of the "change my mind" meme in which he claimed male privilege was entirely a myth is another.

His claims that a Biracial man made up his black ethnic heritage and used that to get a promotion is another.

His Change my mind segment on Louder with Crowder, which I have never seen, has had topics which suggest he holds alt-right viewpoints, but I have nto seen them and can not comment on how the context might improve that view.

This April 2018 tweet where he ‘joked’ about blaming jews for mass shootings and his followers didn’t get the memo probably effects alt-right perceptions.

And that’s a few minutes of googling. I could likely find more in his content. A lot of the individuals on that list are the Gateway drugs of the alt-right world. They often aren’t overt like core alt-right presenters, but present surface level reasonable arguments that all happen to support alt-right views. They often can be shown to cherry pick data, using a small part of a scientific study to reach a conclusion that contradicts the very conclusion the study reaches when looking at the larger dataset. He might be included in that region. Again, I’d have spend more time looking at his content then I have.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Unless we’ve reached the point where merely being anything other than leftist or ‘progressive’ is considered both de facto discriminatory and ‘alt-right’, in which case the whole thing is just a bunch of steaming bullshit."

Anyone who whines about one label being applied to them while throwing out meaningless labels to apply to everybody else is already spouting massive piles of the stuff.

Thad (profile) says:

But when it comes to the use of libel lawsuits to silence critics, he appears to be going with the angle that freedom of speech isn’t relevant to civil actions

I can’t speak for sure to Canadian law (though I gotta say, this reasoning sounds dubious), but here’s a handy Popehat link explaining why that’s definitely not the case in US law: Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About The First Amendment.

Civil lawsuits employ government power in two ways. First, they are premised on laws passed by legislatures. A defamation lawsuit is a lawsuit based upon a defamation law enacted by a state, which is an action by the state. On occasion, they’re based on a nebulous collection of non-statutory precedents called common law, which are nonetheless recognized and enforced by the government through the courts. Second, civil lawsuits employ government power to force you to come to court and force you to pay any resulting judgment against you.

So in 1964, faced with an Alabama defamation judgment against the New York Times for running an advertisement about abuse of civil rights protesters by local officials, the Supreme Court noted that the First Amendment obviously applies to private civil actions that employ state power. "The test is not the form in which state power has been applied but, whatever the form, whether such power has, in fact, been exercised." Because civil lawsuits aimed at speech invoke state power to attack speech, they are limited by the First Amendment. That doesn’t mean that all civil lawsuits attacking speech are absolutely barred. It means that First Amendment analysis applies to them, and may or may not provide a defense to them.

If you think about it even a little, this is the only sensible interpretation. Under a contrary interpretation, a state could pass a law saying that private parties could sue you for offending them, or annoying them, or for expressing certain political views the state disfavors. People could then use the coercive power of the courts to sue you based on those laws. Although I admit there is a certain appeal to a regime under which I may ask a judge to compel you to pay my bar tab if you say stupid and ignorant things about the First Amendment, I recognize that it is not consistent with ordered liberty.

(links and format omitted)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

And if Congress strips their Section 230 protection, it’s their prerogative.

These companies were denying what they were doing to conservatives, which actually can run afoul of consumer-protection laws. Regardless, it means their conversations are censored, which devalues them considerably.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

These companies were denying what they were doing to conservatives, which actually can run afoul of consumer-protection laws.

Please cite the specific consumer protection laws to which you refer, then explain how a private company potentially exhibiting a political bias might violate such laws. An answer that contains only your opinion on the matter is playground horseshit that has no place in this discussion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Common carrier, public square, state actor, etc. It’s why the post office and phone company can’t censor people.

My post, however, dealt with Facebook denying it was censoring, and that can run afoul of consumer fraud laws (misleading claims, etc.0.

On a practical level, censorship poisons debate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

  • social media networks have not been declared common carriers under Title II
  • declaring private property to be the "public square" is very rare, and has only (and under current law pretty much can only) happen at the state level, whereas SCOTUS has repeatedly declined to do so
  • "state actor" would only come into play if a social media network was directly conspiring with government officials to censor conservatives. please tell me you’re not that paranoid
  • you’re going to need a hell of a lot more evidence than you’ve got to make a consumer fraud case. feel free to spend your time fruitlessly searching for it, though
  • on a practical level, MAGA shitheads poison debate too
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Common carrier, public square, state actor, etc.

These are generalized notions, not specific laws. Also: Facebook is not a government-owned entity.

My post, however, dealt with Facebook denying it was censoring, and that can run afoul of consumer fraud laws

Please cite the exact law that Facebook might be breaking in this regard.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Businesses that provide Internet services in California, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are subject to §51 of the California Civil Code, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, religious affiliation, or political or religious beliefs, including speech expressing those beliefs. [California Civil Code §51 (Compl. ¶¶ 46-53)]

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Woah there!

You just straight up imagined that the Unruh Act covers "political affiliation". Like most anti-discrimination rules, it does not.

California Civil Code s.51, aka the Unruh Civil Rights Act, prevents discrimination based on:

"sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation"

Not political affiliation. It’s very interesting to me that you simply assumed (or intentionally pretended?) that political affiliation was on that list.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Wow, so after mocking for ‘just assuming’, you follow up with "Well, yeah, it has been held to cover that’, then pretend you were still right because it’s not in the text of the act, as if I had quoted directly from the act in the first place.

It’s very interesting to me that you simply assumed I was quoting directly from the statute.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Besides the fact that section 51 doesn’t cover political affiliation, it’s also not clear to me it covers information service providers. It guarantees "full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever." The section does not include a definition of "business establishment" but I would think that means a physical location. So as far as I can tell, both components of your claim are incorrect.

http://www.search-california-law.com/research/ca/CIV/51./Cal-Civil-Code-Section-51/text.html

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If they are censoring, it is their prerogative.

No one (other than the crackpot whose posts everyone hides) is saying it’s not, but if they’re claiming to be viewpoint neutral, then it’s valid to challenge their bullshit when the evidence reveals otherwise.

And if there is evidence to the contrary, that brings up issues of perjury, since the Facebooks execs testified under oath to Congress that they are viewpoint neutral.

It all hinges on whether there is real evidence or just a perceived bias.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

People who impute mental illness upon others will one day be the ones who have it imputed upon them, based on their actual behavior.

At some point they will be unemployable and generally ostracized, much like those who used the N-word years ago now find themselves, never dreaming that language which was acceptable at the time could bite them years later.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Project Veritas is an organization that has been held criminally liable for his actions in the past, and lost a defamation lawsuit for using editing and framing to misrepresent the truth of statements made by ACORN employees.. They are known to setup undercover ‘stings’ to catch out the wrongdoing in liberal organizations. These stings inevitably rely on misrepresentation, using statements and quotes out of context, in many cases deliberately cutting out exculpatory context, or framing a situation in such a way to provide an inaccurate context. The famous ACORN sting, is a great one, with an establishing shot of a stereotypical ‘Pimp’ and ‘Prostitute’ outside the ACORN offices, and then jumping to the hidden camera, which never shows that the undercover individuals are now in standard business attire, changing the context of the conversation with the Social worker significantly. The AG of CA found that the video produced a false impression of ACORN’s actions, and the GAO determined the funds were managed appropriately. As such, Project Veritas requires a greater level of proof to convince me of anything.

Much of the details about the policies needed to analyse and verify the claims of this video are not present. Several statements that appear to be anecdotal observations are instead presented as overarching company philosophy. None of this proves that content removal or moderation policies are biased on the basis of the political viewpoint of the content, rather than the content breaching community standards.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

PV is also behind:

The faked "Planned Parenthood sells baby parts" video

The faked "Twitter engineers admits they target Conservatives for censorship" video

And a PV agent is pretty much the only person so far to have faked their accusations of being abused by Roy Moore, as part of a failed attempt to sabotage The Washington Post and The New York Times‘s truthful coverage of the subject.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

And a PV agent is pretty much the only person so far to have faked their accusations of being abused by Roy Moore, as part of a failed attempt to sabotage The Washington Post and The New York Times’s truthful coverage of the subject.

And it was WaPo reporters who discovered PV’s attempted sting in the first place by way of not falling for the obvious bait.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It’s a lot like when a climate "skeptic" says the Earth should start cooling, because It’s all about solar cycles and CO2 is irrelevant, amd then baturally the opposite happens.

Veritas went in to WaPo to try to prove their false premise that WaPo gleefully and recklessly prints any anti-Right smear they hear about regardless of substance, only to get caught by WaPo’s standard pracrice of not doing that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: ol blue never had a clue

I can’t even be mad that you used tried using project veratas as a source. It just sad how fucking divorced from reality and how batshit insane you are to think that those idiots have a shred of credibility. Not to mention that out of all the shit going on, this is the turd you throw in the punch bowl.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps your computer missed that.

As a matter of fact, it did; I’m unable to view content from imgur.

But even if it hadn’t? I’m not gonna do your homework for you. Gesturing vaguely at a screenshot doesn’t cut it; if you’re going to make a claim, it’s on you to back it up.

What specific statements do you believe are defamatory?

You really don’t seem to want to answer that question, which suggests that you do not have much faith in your answer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why is it the ones who cry the loudest when subjected to criticisms or insults, are almost always the same ones who believe they should be the only ones entitled to insult and criticize? And its almost a given they hold bigoted views of others, and openly express those views, but whine incessantly when subjected to anything resembling the language they use. Add to it this claim of free speech, then throw a complete hissy fit when someone else exercises their free speech in challange of them, exposes them as hypocritical snowflakes.
They want free speech, but they believe free speech is them being able to say anything they want, free from challenges and consequences of their words, free speech is only for them.

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