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:
"alt right" is now used as a casual synonym for fascist hatemonger. it's a slur. and if youre going to make stuff up about people, they are going to sue you. I dont know any free-speech champion who says let's gets of libel law. these are private legal actions between individuals
— Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) March 4, 2019
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.