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When to speak up

Ab Initio
|Written By Rebecca Lockwood
When to speak up

I’ve noticed a trend in law school where many students shy away from sharing their political beliefs. It struck me as odd since I’ve always imagined law school as the place where people could really flex their political muscle for the first time.

After all, we’re learning the technical tools to form a well-founded argument and we are beginning to understand the underpinnings of major issues with more detail than ever before. Instead, I’ve found some students and student groups to be rather silent on important issues when I would have expected the opposite.

This political tameness is most evident at times of upheaval and change. For example, massive legislative overhauls such as Bill C-31, Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which completely undid the refugee law system and caused much controversy. Or the more recent tumult after the proposal by Trinity Western University, a private Christian university in British Columbia, to open a new law school which would apply policies that require students to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

These examples are incidences of pressing and relevant political change that I’ve found the student body to fall quiet on. Individual students may discuss such changes amongst themselves, but I’ve noticed hesitation about bringing it up (or rather taking a stance) in larger groups.

This is even more true of student organizations. Many seem reluctant to speak out against a bill, policy, or event even if it’s directly applicable to their members and the community they represent.

I must admit I have witnessed certain student groups take a strong stance on some issues, such as the Osgoode OUTLaws and other equality-focused law student groups in Canada that submitted letters to the Federation of Canadian Law Societies on the TWU proposal. Of course, such politically vocal groups do exist and often act admirably. I simply note reluctance on the part of some students and groups to act similarly.

The reasons why people hesitate to take a political stance are valid and strong in some instances. For individual students, some may fear offending future employers or appearing less than objective to their peers. And we all know the importance of objectivity in the practice of law and decision-making.

A classmate of mine recently started a job at a big firm in downtown Toronto. She quietly said to me that she was hesitant about being her complete critical self in this new environment where she didn’t know where anyone stood since nobody really talked about their personal opinions. The apolitical trend in law school apparently transfers into work life as well.

Some students may simply fear speaking out period. In first semester of first year, I was terribly intimidated to speak up in class about certain policy issues or decisions I disagreed with. Even when I felt so strongly my blood boiled, I was still nervous about talking up my politics. Looking back, my hesitation at the outset had little to do with the strength of my convictions and more with my confidence in voicing them while keeping my new classmates onside. That gradually changed, as I worried less about what others thought of me and realized that as long as I was informed and articulate about the issues I was passionate about, I had no reason not to discuss them openly.

Student bodies often remain silent on issues to avoid isolating members of their organization who may not agree with the political position they consider adopting outwardly. To be objective and inclusive are also admirable qualities and legitimate reasons why a group wouldn’t want to take a public stance on an issue.

I am part of a student club that recently debated whether or not to make a public statement against a bill that undoubtedly affected our community. We voted and the results were to remain apolitical so as not to scare off future members or ostracize current members who in fact supported the bill.

While I understood the ultimate decision of my student club and empathize with the decisions of individuals to remain neutral on certain issues, I also think it’s a bit of a shame.

These incidences of political commotion are absolutely relevant to our profession, and our current studies in law really do inform us in a unique way as to the impact of such changes. We are in an ideal position to make strong and informed statements about these issues and others.

Furthermore, if future employers want to find fault in public politicism, our “greenness” is the perfect excuse. We have our entire lifetimes and careers to neutralize and pacify. If there was ever a moment to take a chance and take a stance, it’s now.

I’m not suggesting we make our politics front and centre of every conversation we hold — we shouldn’t only see “feminist” or “conservative” walk into the room with complete disregard for the human being behind such a label. Nor am I calling for only one kind of politics to speak up. I simply believe that when an issue arises, whether a refugee law bill, discriminatory law school policies, or simply a decision discussed in class that we see as utterly offensive, we as law students have every right to say something about it.


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