An executive member of a free speech club at the University of Ottawa is suing a Carleton student for allegedly defamatory comments suggesting he is connected to the alt-right. The lawsuit is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing battle over “free speech” and increasing far-right activity on campus.
The plaintiff, Michele Di Franco, is part of UOttawa Students for Free Speech (uOSFS), which is part of a network of campus groups. The originating group in the network, Students for Free Speech (SFS), was started in October 2016 by supporters of controversial University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson.
Michael Bueckert, the defendant in the lawsuit, is a PhD student in sociology and political economy at Carleton University.
A court filing against Bueckert dated Feb. 27, 2019, says that he made statements describing Di Franco as alt-right, a “lobster fanboy” (a satirical term for supporters of Jordan Peterson), a men’s rights activist, and an associate of far-right extremists. One such extremist is Gavin McInnes, former leader of the Proud Boys gang and current Rebel Media employee.
According to the court filing, Bueckert’s comments — made on Twitter, a personal blog and Ricochet-affiliated podcast 49th Parahell — “falsely allege” that Di Franco is racist and part of the alt-right. Di Franco is seeking $100,000 in damages for defamation, a further $50,000 in punitive damages, coverage of his legal costs, as well as a retraction of Bueckert’s statements.
The lawsuit may be part of a larger pattern, according to Bueckert.
“The danger is to create a precedent where reasonable and fair comment on political speech is silenced,” he told Ricochet by phone, calling the legal action a “pretty heavy-handed attempt to stifle debate and crush dissent.”
Conflict and the Student Choice Initiative
The conflict between Bueckert and Di Franco emerged from the controversial Student Choice Initiative announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford last January.
Di Franco, along with other executive members of campus free speech clubs, participated in a “free speech roundtable” with the premier in August 2018. According to Di Franco, the idea for the Student Choice Initiative came from the uOSFS.
Well myself and my colleagues from clubs from all across Ontario were consulted on elements of this policy . As a matter of fact, it was my club (uOttawa Student for Free Speech) who suggested the policy allowing students to opt out of these corrupt student unions— Michele Di Franco (@realmdifranco) January 17, 2019
Touted by the government as “freedom of choice,” the Student Choice Initiative will allow post-secondary students to decide what ancillary fees to pay, jeopardizing the financial stability or even existence of groups that depend on mandatory levies for funding. This includes everything from campus radio stations and newspapers, to student clubs, associations, and unions, to Ontario Public Interest Research Groups and the Canadian Federation of Students — in short, much of what makes up the essence of campus life. The effect could be to reduce critical services, hurt free expression on campus and impoverish the marketplace of ideas.
Bueckert has been critical of the Ford government’s consultations with students, arguing that “just the alt-right ones” were included. In doing so, he pointed to Di Franco’s appearance on a show hosted by Gavin McInnes, former head of the far-right Proud Boys, a number of whose members have been charged with riot and attempted physical assault of their political opponents. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described them as a hate group.
In an interview with McInnes in March 2018, an excerpt of which is hosted on the uOSFS YouTube channel, Di Franco joked about “a little fisticuffs” that occurred at an event hosted by the uOSFS at the Ottawa Library. It featured University of Ottawa professor Janice Fiamengo, who endorses men’s rights activism and “anti-feminism.” Video footage from the event shows a man striking protesters with his fists at the library’s main door. While talking with Di Franco, McInnes referred to the assailant as his “buddy Willy” and a “friend of mine.”
Bueckert also pointed out that Di Franco has tweeted support for infamous alt-right provocateur Alex Jones.
Di Franco declined to answer questions for this story. “My client does not wish to litigate this case through the media,” his lawyer told Ricochet in an email.
Campus Conservatives on the offensive
The Student Choice Initiative bears a striking similarity to goals disclosed in a leaked 2009 recording of an Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association workshop focused on “how to take over student governments.”
In the workshop, campus conservative activists referred to the use of front groups to advance the agenda of the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario and target organizations such as the Ontario Public Interest Research Groups and the Canadian Federation of Students.
“Don’t think that the party doesn’t like that, because they do. They’re things that will help the party, but it looks like it’s an organically grown organization and it just stimulated from the grassroots spontaneously. They love that stuff. And they don’t have to bear the burden of having any of it attached to their name,” said workshop facilitator Aaron Lee-Wudrick.
In his own comments announcing the Student Choice Initiative, Premier Ford said, “Students will have open dialogue, open debate, and they aren’t going to be shut down by the special interest groups or the universities.”
The Student Choice Initiative followed on the heels of the Ford government’s campus free speech policy, a directive released in August 2018 mandating that post-secondary institutions develop and implement free speech policies. Critics have said this could provide cover for hateful ideas and the figures who promote them, which in turn would threaten the safety of minority groups on campus while framing counterprotest as censorship.
The Carleton University Graduate Students’ Association, of which Bueckert is a member, called Di Franco’s lawsuit an “attack on student activists” and “ironically but not surprisingly … an attack on freedom of speech.”
“This frivolous lawsuit confirms that the aims of Doug Ford’s policy on ‘freedom of speech’ is to provide a platform and protection for xenophobic, racist, white supremacist, sexist and other oppressive discourses on university and college campuses,” it said in a Facebook post.
A Gofundme campaign for Bueckert’s legal defence raised over $6,000 in its first 24 hours and is now at nearly $20,000.
‘Free speech’ campus groups linked to far right
Will Walsh, a Toronto-based researcher looking into the far right and online radicalization, agrees that campus groups such as SFS might exist in part to provide political cover for controversial conversations, such as white nationalist, anti-immigrant or transphobic rhetoric that exists on the margins of the Progressive Conservative party. These groups may also serve as a bridgehead for pushing the party’s political agenda on campus outside of official party channels.
“All of these figures stand inside the tent of one shared political movement,” he said, adding that SFS “is a classic example of authoritarians hijacking the guaranteed [speech] rights of liberal democracy to dismantle the system from within.”
He wrote a report detailing far-right personalities and violent incidents at the first SFS rally in Toronto in 2016. That event — officially billed as a “debate” on the amendment of the Canada Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination via Bill C-16 — saw Jordan Peterson and then Rebel Media personality Lauren Southern preside over a violent campus demonstration. Walsh’s report details six altercations, five of which involved violence by supporters of SFS and Peterson directed against transgender students and their allies.
Walsh provided Ricochet with a list of connections between SFS and far-right activities via email:
- In a now-deleted post, Mari Jang, former SFS president at the University of Toronto, approved of submitting the identities of two professors who had become critics of Jordan Peterson to a right-wing “anti-Marxist watchlist.”
- SFS hosted a rally in Toronto in support of the “Halifax Five,” who faced military discipline for their membership in the Proud Boys. At the Toronto rally, Paul Fromm, one of Canada’s most notorious Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, was handed a megaphone by Marshall John Darbyshire, part of the Ryerson SFS and also a Progressive Conservative political volunteer.
- Following this incident, SFS disavowed Paul Fromm and split apart, with several of the more alt-right-oriented members joining the now-defunct group Students in Support of Free Discourse. Many of those exiting members and supporters also joined an explicitly anti-Semitic and alt-right Proud Boys offshoot group, the Proud Goys. Fromm is reportedly under police investigation after making statements supporting the shooter in the mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand.
- In the fall of 2017, Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Laurier University, rose to national prominence after leaking an audio recording of a disciplinary meeting in which she was reprimanded for playing a TVO interview with Jordan Peterson in a class. Shepherd went on to help found Laurier Students for Open Inquiry, which pursued a mandate similar to that of SFS. It hosted events with several conservative figures, including former Rebel Media commentator Andrew Lawton and the avowed white nationalist, alt-right personality and former Rebel Media anchor Faith Goldy. A photo from that event clearly shows Goldy and Shepherd being escorted by George Hutcheson, current president of the white nationalist group Students for Western Civilization. Both Goldy and Hutcheson have publicly echoed “white genocide” and “white replacement” talking points espoused by the Christchurch shooter.
When asked about the SFS and its free speech mandate, Bueckert said “it doesn’t matter” if the intention is actually to promote free speech, given the harmful ideas and individuals the club promotes.
“They are actively providing these people with a platform and giving them a legitimacy that they do not deserve. It is especially critical to speak now, when it is an issue that is so important and groups like the alt-right have more power, as a result of Doug [Ford]'s free speech strategy.”