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MP Kerry Diotte’s lawsuit against student paper a gutless attack on free press

November 27, 2018 —

As a student publication, having the freedom to publish accurate and fair stories about public figures without fear of reprisal is integral to our operation.

That’s why last week’s news about the University of Alberta’s student newspaper rang as such a shock.

On Nov. 19, Kerry Diotte, the Conservative MP for Edmonton Griesbach, sued The Gateway, alleging that two stories published by the student paper defamed him.

According to Diotte’s statement of claim, the first was a news story about the U of A’s Students’ Union president posing in a photo with Diotte, who The Gateway claimed “has a history of making racist remarks.” The second was an editorial criticizing this association with Diotte, who The Gateway writes “makes pals with white nationalists,” referring to Diotte’s tweet of a picture of himself with Faith Goldy, a white nationalist who recently ran as a marginal candidate in Toronto’s mayoral race.

Diotte’s suit against The Gateway is a textbook example of a SLAPP, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Essentially, it’s legal action taken in order to intimidate critics, who often aren’t in a financial position to fight a lawsuit, into silence. It’s a gutless act of censorship by an elected politician intended to silence criticism. And it’s being carried out against an independent student publication.

Baseless lawsuits against student publications — or any publications for that matter — are an affront to free press. This is especially true as even though The Gateway retracted portions of the articles Diotte took offence to, he didn’t drop the suit against the publication.

Diotte has a history of insensitive, discriminatory and, some might say, racist behaviour.

In 1997, Diotte wrote an op-ed for the Edmonton Sun with the headline “Gypsy immigrants should get a job first.” NDP opponent Janis Irwin says that Diotte “refused to show up and debate [her] at forums hosted by Aboriginal groups and African-Canadian youth during the federal election.

While sitting in Parliament in 2016, Diotte tweeted a photo of a bingo card he was playing during Question Period that included squares labelled “Syrians” and “indigenous.” His mail-outs to constituents contain anti-immigrant rhetoric. He attended and spoke at a 2016 rally held by The Rebel, a far-right media organization, and remains the only politician to speak at that event and not disavow The Rebel.

And that’s all to say nothing of the tweet that acted as a catalyst to this lawsuit, where Diotte is more than happy to pose for a photo with a white nationalist.

Diotte’s trigger-happy nature with legal action didn’t end with The Gateway. Near the start of November, he sent threats of legal action to four Twitter users in their early 20s, including Edmonton writer Bashir Mohamed, who called Diotte a racist.

Despite this, Diotte calls himself a “strong defender of free speech” in his statement on the lawsuit. But his SLAPP lawsuit and threats of legal action are attacks on free speech. Diotte is a coward who will stand up for free speech only when it benefits him.

In addition, this suit is a clear demonstration that Alberta needs anti-SLAPP legislation. It should not be permissible for anyone, much less an MP, to bully vulnerable citizens with legal action meant to stifle free speech.

The Gauntlet stands in solidarity with The Gateway and strongly condemns MP Diotte’s frivolous lawsuit against them. Canada needs a #FreeStudentPress.

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