A battle of words has reached new heights at the University of Alberta.
At the Feb. 5 meeting of the U of A Students' Council, fourth-year Arts student Paul Conquest served the U of A Students' Union President Chris Samuel with a defamation lawsuit naming the SU and Samuel personally as defendants.
"I've been contemplating it for a long time so I'm pretty cool with it at this point," said Conquest of the lawsuit. "The general reaction has been positive from everybody I've talked to."
Samuel declined comment on the situation.
The lawsuit arose from a response written by Samuel in the April 5, 2001 issue of the U of A student newspaper, the Gateway, to an opinion piece published by Conquest in the April 3, 2001 issue of the Gateway. In his piece, Conquest questioned the propriety of the SU Awards Committee after it was revealed that 17 of the 36 SU award winners were current or former SU executives, councillors or employees. Conquest stated that in light of these numbers and due to the demographics of SU-affiliated students eligible for awards, SU-affiliated applicants had a higher probability of receiving an award than an undergraduate with no involvement in the SU. Conquest also questioned the composition of the Awards committee, pointing out a "disproportionate" representation of the SU on the committee.
"When I wrote the piece, I thought 'someone is going to defend this,'" explained Conquest. "They'd be foolish not to defend it. The question is, did they defend it properly. I don't think they did."
The SU response took the form of a half-page advertisement purchased in the Gateway containing a letter from then Vice-President Academic Samuel. In the letter, Samuel outlined the process by which a student may apply and be selected for an award and defended the integrity of the committee. In doing so, Samuel stated that Conquest was "uninformed and thus unqualified to make any statements about the awards selection process," and called for Conquest to apologize to the Awards Selection committee, the Students' Council and the award recipients.
"This in my opinion is an attack and it's a personal attack," said Conquest, who stated he has never applied for an SU award. "It was all about attacking and demeaning Paul Conquest in order to take the heat off the committee. I think [Samuel] should have focused on the way the committee was structured, he should have asserted that it wasn't biased … there's all kinds of things he could have done but he didn't have to attack the opinion holder in order to make his case."
Calgary Herald Editor-in-Chief Peter Menzies explained that while the final decision on right or wrong is ultimately in the hands of the courts, as an editor, he would not have printed Samuel's letter.
"From an outside perspective, the issue raised is fundamental to journalism and not only journalism but general discourse," said Menzies. "In my view, it's much more productive if people keep their arguments about ideas and things aren't personalized. Saying the argument is inadequate is one thing, but saying the person making the argument is inadequate is quite another."
Menzies added that Conquest was not entirely without fault.
"Citizens are certainly free to question structures and say 'This looks to me like there isn't enough openness about this,'" he said. "You can question the decision but you have to be very careful in questioning the motivation of the people making the decision."
Conquest explained that going to court is not the only option. The letter written by Samuel may have impeded his ability to obtain academic references for graduate study, a problem he says could be remedied by the SU.
"There's an offer on the table and the offer is to apologize, to make a donation to charity, to cover my legal fees," he said. "The issue is that my reputation has been damaged and what I wanted was a public acknowledgement that my article was not inaccurate, so an apology. And if they were to do that, then for the most part that would resurrect my reputation, I think."
Conquest added that despite a positive reaction to the lawsuit from other students, an out-of-court settlement is preferable.
"It's a no-win situation," he said. "Both parties incur legal expenses, there's a lot of embarrassment and if you resolve to sue somebody, you get painted with a brush that isn't so popular sometimes too. So I don't see it being a win-win situation."