Saturday, February 23, 2013

U of O president Allan Rock and law professor Joanne St. Lewis must not sue student Hazel Gashoka

Threat of lawsuit against YouTube video

By Denis Rancourt

Hazel Gashoka earned an Honours B.A. in psychology from the University of Ottawa in 2012 and is now a graduate student in Community Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University.  As an undergraduate at the U of O, she was an activist for social justice, and in her graduating year was elected to represent students on the University Senate.

In 2008, while Gashoka was an undergraduate, the student union reported systemic racism at the University of Ottawa.  The report drew a lot of public attention and was an embarrassment to the university.  In response, the university asked U of O law professor Joanne St. Lewis to publicly "assess" the student report.  In just a few days' time, St. Lewis issued a public report questioning the validity of the student charges.

Gashoka recently made a six-minute YouTube video (imbedded below) analyzing St. Lewis's role in helping the university deflect the students' charge of racism.  (St. Lewis and Gashoka are black, and this writer is white.)

After the video was posted, St. Lewis, through a big-name lawyer hired for her by the university, sent Gashoka a notice of libel, which is a threat to sue for defamation.


St. Lewis is already suing former U of O physics professor Denis Rancourt for $1 million for expressing a similar view on his “U of O Watch” blog.  That defamation lawsuit, which began in 2011, is funded by the university and pursued by the same lawyer who is threatening Gashoka -- Richard Dearden of the large corporate law firm Gowlings.  University president Allan Rock testified under oath that his funding of the lawsuit against Rancourt is without a spending limit, “without a cap.”

Gashoka made public the threat that she received, and she publicly called upon Rock to “Please confirm that the University of Ottawa will not be funding a defamation lawsuit against me [her].”

In this writer’s opinion, it is morally wrong for the University of Ottawa and St. Lewis to try to silence Gashoka.  Using public funds and student tuition money to fund repressive litigation against her would be ironic, as the university claims to promote discourse and debate on matters of public interest.

Gashoka has the right to interpret the facts any way that she wants in this or any other matter of public importance.  Public controversy and debate on societal issues can be a rough trade and can involve terms that sting, but the law accommodates its requirements.  St. Lewis should not expect to be immune from criticism for the role that she played.

I call on president Allan Rock to state publicly, without further delay, that the university will not fund a lawsuit against Hazel Gashoka for her video, and to clarify the university’s criteria for funding lawsuits against its critics.

See all related posts HERE.