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Anatomy of a controversy

|Written By David Samuel

In April, a controversy exploded at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law because of an article I submitted to its law school paper, Inter Pares.


As a result, the faculty pulled all the papers from the shelves, entire classes were spent discussing the article, and the dean of the law school, Bruce Feldthusen, wrote an open letter to the school condemning the article as an “incitement to rape.”

Some professors even encouraged students to lobby firms against hiring the editors of the Pares.

The article is a satirical stab at the idea that being “in law” is a male’s greatest asset in attracting women.

Although I denounced using this method to attract women as “daft,” feminist groups at Ottawa U misinterpreted my message; and perceived the contrary. They also reacted to the article’s tone and other material in the article they found offensive — it was, admittedly, uncouth.

However, that same article was published at my home school’s newspaper, The Caveat Lector of the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, where it was received in good humour.

Upon hearing of the uproar to the East, our dean and former associate dean, Brent Cotter and Dwight Newman respectively, read the article and decided its content was permitted by the freedom of expression afforded by Canadian law.

I then sought a third opinion from a faculty member at Osgoode Hall with freedom of expression experience — who also found nothing wrong.

So what fueled Ottawa U’s outrage? Is the U of S faculty without the “sophisticated understanding of violence against women” as dean Feldthusen implied in the Ottawa Citizen? Does the blast radius of the outrage and censorship accurately reflect the proportion of students supporting it? Or did the minority simply overreact and get the leverage it needed because those with influence agreed?

Whatever the case, what happened is an interesting elucidation of the disparity in political stances between Canadian law school students.

This is especially paradoxical given that all lawyers are branded with the same one-dimensional profile: that of a self-interested, dishonest, uppity clod. But this ostensibly doesn’t resonate with the truth; the exact same stimulus produced laughter in the Midwest but birthed an angry mob in the East.

It would seem that the degree of difference among us as a profession is just as gaping as the difference between us and other professions.

I was in Ottawa in May and June and had the opportunity to distill some truth from a group from Ottawa U law students.

The group’s consensus was: although the article’s type of humour did not appeal to everyone, most students disagreed with any type of censorship.

One student even expressed embarrassment about the event. A few actually enjoyed the episode, stating that “it was an exciting two weeks.”

But perhaps that group was just another non-representative minority.

To delve even deeper, I met a few leaders of the protest against me.

The meeting was amicable, and one revealed to me that Jane Doe, of the widely studied torts case, Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police had just visited the law school. That case involves a woman who was used as bait by the Toronto police to apprehend a rapist in her area. One forerunner of my protest offered that the more irascible groups may have been primed by this visit, and without it “the whole thing probably wouldn’t have been as big as it turned out.”

In any event, the occurrence shows the varying degrees of complexity among Canadian law students. This comes as a refreshing retort to stereotypes against law students and lawyers.

It also shows that despite what bastions of rationality we try to be, topics that hit close to home will pit our personal identities against the law those very identities are bound to defend.

David Samuel is currently a third-year law student at the University of Saskatchewan and is editor-in-chief of the Caveat Lector. He can be reached at davidsamuel42.2@gmail.com.

  • Bad taste

    A female Ottawa U student
    Hi,

    I have just read the article again and I still think it's bad taste. However, I must admit that the university overreacted with regard to Inter Pares.

    As an European woman, I am also offended by the innuendos made toward European girls' alleged easy virtue in Samuels' original article. Being free to write and to say whatever we please is not a license to be offensive and wrap it up in a certain sense of humour.

    As members of the law profession, we use "words" as a powerful way to convey messages so I'd suggest he weighs his words before laying them on a paper.
  • makin\' it simple...

    like an elephant
    After reading all the comments, I am going to make this nice and simple, since I know that I am not dealing with the best and brightest.

    possible incitement to rape = suggesting that a woman be pried with alcohol so that she no longer says "no"

    free and democratic society = a place where limits are put on oppressive speech

    Finally, a suggestion for Mr. Samuel and friends: using big words doesn't mask the flaws in your arguments.
  • Here we go again...

    Grad
    This is not the first time something like this has happened with Inter Pares. There was a similar reaction in 2005-2006 with an article. Same threats were made, and I would assume by the same people. This has got to stop.
  • The Wet One
    It is emminently evident to me that administrators at U of O Law School need to get a firmer grip on reading comprehension and reality. Incitement to rape? Where is it? Please point it out to me and the world? How does anyone's satirical discussion of how to persuade a woman to agree to have sex with a man constitute "Incitement to rape"? Heck, even Dworkin didn't mean "all sex is rape" when she said it.

    Such childishness belongs to 14 year olds, not administrators of institutions of higher learning where everyone is supposed to be an adult.
  • Embarrassed

    U of O Student
    I for one, am embarrassed by my law school's (over)reaction to this article.

    I did manage to read the article before it was promptly pulled from the shelves. As noted above, it was clearly tongue-in-cheek. However, I can see how some people might take offense if they didn't get the joke...

    However, the school's reaction was the real story here. Pulling an "independent" school newspaper from the stands, slandering the editors, and beginning a witch hunt to identify the author (who at the time was though to be a UofO student) is *not* an appropriate response by the administration.

    The situation could have been resolved by a simple apology printed in the next edition, including a recognition of the seriousness of sexual assault in Canadian society. Instead, the administration over-reacted, and in the process I have lost respect for my law school.

    Censorship of this kind does not belong in a free and democratic society.

    Sincerely,

    A UofO Student who wishes to remain anonymous (so as to avoid the ire of the school administration and its supporters)
  • M. Susan Lynham
    I have read the article in question (thank you for the link) and I have to admit that there were moments when I actually guffawed out loud.

    30 years ago, at "No Talent" night at UWO law school, we gave an award to one of our classmates for "the best use of law school student status to get lucky". Bruce Feldthusen, outraged Dean, was a professor at UWO at the time and I have no reason to believe that he did not find the whole thing as funny as we all did. Remember, this was a time when women made up less than 25% of the 3rd year class.

    Perhaps my language in writing the same article would have been different considering that I am female, but the bottom line is that, whether you know Mr. Samuels or not, surely no one could think that this was not written "tongue-in-cheek".

    Dean Felthusen's comment that this was an "incitement to rape" , is, to my mind, nothing short of ludicrous. I am sorry, but I can see nothing in this article that could reasonably lead to that conclusion. Certainly, the article discusses ways and means of "getting lucky" and whether using your law school status is of assistance in that regard. I see that the author has clearly grasped the concept that it is the female who will be deciding when and if anything will ever happen. I cannot see any "caveman" mentality that the male is the decider in the article.

    I see this as nothing more than political correctness run amok.
  • Tim Delaney
    I haven't read the article that caused this controversy, but I suspect there is another simple and plausible explanation, not mentioned in this Canadian Lawyer article, why Mr. Samuel's article was received as a joke at his school and not at the U of Ottawa. I presume people know Mr. Samuel at the U of S, so I presume they would know he was joking. Whereas probably no one at U of O knew him and would not know how to receive the article.

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