Marie Henein, Universities and the Sounds of Silence

I was sitting with Marie Henein at a dinner this weekend, discussing the debates her speaking tour at several Canadian Universities have sparked. While Michael Goldbloom, the Principal of Bishops University, notably wrote in defence of that University’s invitation to Marie Henein to speak, I was reminded that too many leaders in the legal and academic community have simply remained on the sidelines.

Marie Henein’s high profile and successful defence of Jian Gomeshi generated national attention last year, and unleashed a wave of commentary (and concern). While some saw the trial as evidence our criminal justice system worked the way it should, others saw it as an illustration of our criminal justice system is “sexist” and “broken.”  – many directed anger toward Mr. Gomeshi himself, but others focused their frustration personally on the trial judge – Justice William Horkins – and, of course, on Marie Henein as Mr. Gomeshi’s lawyer.

As Jessyca Greenwood and Keli Mersereau observed in a recent article, “the overheated attacks made against Marie Henein since she secured acquittals for CBC radio celebrity Jian Gomeshi in a series of sexual assault charges represent a new, low-water mark. Not content simply to condemn Henein for defending her client, critics have accused her of being a traitor to feminism and an apologist for the legal status quo.”

Indeed, the student newspaper at St. FX featured an article suggesting the invitation of Marie Henein itself perpetuated rape culture, her role as a defence lawyer characterized as “victim blaming.”

The debate around Marie Henein’s lectures raises broader questions for Universities in particular, and how issues around sexual assault, whether on campus or in society, should be addressed.

In response to the controversy, a number of editorials and posts have enumerated the reasons why Marie Henein should be welcomed to discuss her experiences. Some point to the importance of the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Some just want to hear more from a smart and accomplished leader in her field. Others point out that lawyers should not be identified personally with their clients. They add that ensuring a full defence to all those subject to criminal prosecution is how we uphold the rule of law, and that can (and sometimes must) involve challenging the credibility of witnesses.

This issue has particular resonance at Osgoode Hall Law School, where Marie Henein is a well known and well respected graduate who has frequently returned to the Law School as an Adjunct Professor, guest speaker and mentor. Osgoode is a diverse community, with deep roots in the criminal justice community and in the feminist legal community. The Gomeshi trial and its aftermath were points of departure for much debate and reflection at the Law School, and from multiple perspectives. Convening the discussions that shape our justice system, and charting impact of that system on individuals, on communities and on society, is part of our DNA. As Michael Goldbloom wrote in defending the invitation to Henein to give a talk at Bishop’s,

“How our criminal justice system deals with sexual assault cases is a difficult issue. And it is important that our universities be places where difficult issues can be discussed in an intelligent, informed and respectful way. We should not shy away from confronting tough questions.”

Lawyers (or Law Schools, for that matter) are not and should not be exempted from criticism from those who feel the justice system is wanting. But when lawyers are silenced, it is the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society, and their legal protections, that are threatened. As the Toronto Star Editorial recently opined, “Let Marie Henein Speak” I couldn’t have put it any better.