EDITORIAL: Kerry Diotte says he’s not a racist (and we can’t afford to say otherwise)

Graphic by Austin Clay Willis, Design Director.

Friends, Victorians, Countrymen, lend us your ears… Kerry Diotte says he is not a racist. For Kerry Diotte is an honourable man.

Diotte, a Conservative MP in Alberta, is taking legal action against the University of Alberta’s student newspaper, The Gateway, for alleged defamation — for which he may seek $150 000 in damages — in response to two articles the paper published in early November. The paper has since apologized and retracted some, though not all, of their statements regarding Diotte.

In a statement on Diotte’s Facebook profile, Diotte said that he “was referred to as ‘a racist’ in not one, but two, articles.” Diotte denies all allegations of being racist.

In both articles, The Gateway criticized Reed Larsen, President of the University of Alberta Students’ Union, for appearing in a photo with Diotte. The Gateway’s primary concern over Larsen’s appearance in the photo stemmed from Diotte’s apparent “questionable political moments over the course of his career.” As examples, the Gateway cited a 2016 Tweet about a “horrifically offensive bingo sheet for ‘Liberal buzzwords’” that Diotte joked he used during parliamentary Question Period (Diotte has since apologized for the Tweet). Other moments criticized by the Gateway included Diotte’s apparent association with former Rebel Media star turned Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy, who lost her Rebel position after being a guest on a what is widely known as a neo-Nazi podcast. A photo of Diotte and Goldy posing together from May 2016 appears on Diotte’s Twitter feed, while another photo from February 2017 of Diotte and Goldy also has the caption, “Tnx [sic] for Making the Media Great Again.”

Is saying someone associates with white nationalists the same thing as calling them a racist?

Here lies the question: is pointing out that someone’s actions could be interpreted as racism the same thing as calling them a racist? Is saying someone associates with white nationalists the same thing as calling them a racist?

Is it a racist act to play bingo in Question Period with a “Liberal Buzzword Bingo” card containing boxes labeled “indigenous,” “first nations,” and “Syrians”? Is racism standing for photos with Faith Goldy, who has (among many, many other things) stated that immigration in Canada contributes to “white genocide”?

At the end of the day, it depends on a person’s definition of what constitutes racism, and, most importantly, it depends on the courts’ definitions of what constitutes racism. Defamation laws are in place to protect people’s reputation. The courts must also consider the importance of free speech when making their decisions, and strike a balance between free speech with an individual’s right to protection from undue harm. A supposed defamatory remark can be defended by the courts if it is true.

We hope Diotte’s actions will not hinder the freedom of independent student papers, who have such limited resources as is, simply because they cannot afford to speak their truth.

We hope Diotte’s actions will not scare future generations of journalists out of confronting figures of authority. We hope it will not hinder the freedom of independent student papers, who have such limited resources as is, simply because they cannot afford to speak their truth. Sometimes, such legal actions are done to intimidate or silence critics, and laws exist (in Ontario and Quebec at least) to stop them.

We hope The Gateway and other papers will not feel discouraged from reporting difficult stories with varied perspectives and write editorials with critical opinions.

From the perspective of student journalism, this has the potential to be a landmark case, dictating the role that independent student newspapers have in reporting and interpreting news.

We stand in solidarity with The Gateway and we look forward to hearing the outcome of this case.

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