A racial reference on a blog posting is at the centre of a lawsuit between two former University of Ottawa professors.
Joanne St. Lewis, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, is suing former physics professor Denis Rancourt over statements he published about her on his blog.
Rancourt, who was a fully tenured professor at Ottawa before being fired in March 2009 and administered the blog “U of O Watch” since 2007, is being sued by St. Lewis for $1 million. At the heart of the dispute is a February 2011 blog post by Rancourt, “Did Professor Joanne St. Lewis act as Allan Rock’s house negro?”
The term “house negro” was used by civil rights activist Malcolm X in his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots” speech to describe slaves who were subservient to their white masters, and received better living conditions than their peers who worked in the fields.
The origin of the dispute between St. Lewis and Rancourt dates back to November 2008, when the Student Appeal Centre of the Student Federation University of Ottawa released a report entitled “Mistreatment of Students, Unfair Practices and Systemic Racism at the University of Ottawa.”
Among other findings, the report stated “Arab, Black, and Asian men and women — these are the students that most often get accused of academic fraud.”
In response to the report, University of Ottawa president Allan Rock had St. Lewis assess its findings. Her report, released Nov. 25, 2008, had 10 recommendations for the university’s administration and SAC to follow up.
Rancourt was critical of the report, stating in a December 2008 post, “rather than being an independent report, and far from being of professional caliber, the St. Lewis evaluation is prima facie intended to diffuse a media and public relations image management liability for the University.”
In February 2011, Rancourt released an update to the story, providing links to documents that SAC received from an access to information request, which showed correspondence between St. Lewis and members of U of O’s administration prior to the release of her 2008 report.
According to Rancourt’s post, the documents, “suggest[ed] that law professor Joanne St. Lewis acted like president Allan Rock’s house negro when she enthusiastically toiled to discredit a 2008 SAC report about systemic racial discrimination at the university.”
Rancourt stated in the post that “the term house negro was defined by Malcolm X in his famous ‘The House Negro and The Field Negro’ speech” — and provided a link to a video of him using the term.
In her statement of claim against Rancourt, dated June 23, 2011, St. Lewis — who has previously held positions with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Race Relations Directorate — is seeking $500,000 for general damages in defamation, $250,000 in aggravated damages, and $250,000 for punitive damages.
She is also seeking an order from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice for Rancourt to remove the post from his site as well as an order that he publish a full and complete apology.
“The damages to professor St. Lewis increase and continue every day that the defamatory publications are available via the Internet — these defamatory statements must therefore be taken down,” stated St. Lewis’ counsel Richard Dearden, a lawyer with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP.
“The compensatory and punitive damages claimed relate to the injury to reputation caused by the defendant,” he added.
Rancourt defended his use of the term house negro in his blog post.
“Those who argue that the same point could have been made without using the term ‘house negro’ have the onus to explain why this racial socio-political term should not be used in circumstances where it applies,” Rancourt said in an e-mail to Law Times. “Public discourse is not served by those who, in this way, would censor accepted expressions which contain taboo words.
“Those who argue for this censorship in all media circumstances are saying ‘be polite’ and ‘be sensitive’ as a first requirement, thereby effectively drawing attention away from the actions which are being criticized. It is the institutional behaviour that needs examining, not the arguable benefits of censorship or self-censorship,” he added.
Rancourt issued an official statement of defence on July 22, requesting the action against him be dismissed. In the defence, Rancourt denied the allegations of racism and expressed his objection to the sentiment that it is “always unacceptable or improper for a white man to correctly use the term ‘house negro’ in referring to the actions of a black woman.”
He added this was particularly so in a “media context of critical commentary in a matter of public interest, namely systemic racism and improper professional and institutional behaviour at a university.”
Additionally, Rancourt offered a number of defences to his blog posts, including defence of truth, defence of fair comment, and defence of responsible reporting.
St. Lewis’ counsel filed a reply to Rancourt’s statement of defence on Aug. 5, and on Aug. 18 submitted a notice of motion for an order that mandatory mediation of the action take place in September and an order that either former Ontario Justice James Chadwick or lawyer Kevin Mullington be chosen as a mediator. Rancourt has until Aug. 29 to submit a reply factum to the notice.
None of the allegations set out in any of the pleadings or court documents have yet been proven in court.
Rancourt was a professor at the University of Ottawa for 23 years before his dismissal, which Ottawa’s administration stated in a 2009 press release was motivated in part by Rancourt awarding an A+ to the students in his fourth-year physics class and Masters class in 2008. The university said it would damage the institution’s reputation, but Rancourt said he was free to use any teaching method and stated this was an effort to get students to focus more on learning than on grades.
However, the case is still not wholly settled. The Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa, having Rancourt as its main witness, is currently engaged in a binding arbitration process with Ottawa administration over the status of his job. The hearings began in May and are expected to go into 2012.