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Protesters gathered in front of the offices of the president of Dalhousie University, in Halifax. The protest was a reaction to comments allegedly made on social media by male dentistry students. (Scott Munn)
Protesters gathered in front of the offices of the president of Dalhousie University, in Halifax. The protest was a reaction to comments allegedly made on social media by male dentistry students. (Scott Munn)

Globe editorial

Dalhousie’s handling of Facebook scandal is the right way to go Add to ...

By today’s standards, Richard Florizone, the president of Dalhousie University, is a man of moderation. Yes, he has suspended 13 male fourth-year dental students from working at the dentistry school’s public clinic. And he has repeatedly expressed his repugnance for the crude misogynistic and homophobic slurs posted on a now-defunct Facebook page to which the 13 men have been linked.

But what Dr. Florizone has not done is waver in his determination that any consequences faced by the men will be, as he has said, “based on a just process – one that complies with the law, is consistent with university policies, and supports the rights of everyone involved.” Punishment has to come after adjudication, not before.

The unnamed 13 men allegedly communicated via a Facebook group where users joked with each other about which of their female schoolmates they would like to “hate fuck.” One posting referred to the penis as a “tool” to “convert lesbians into useful, productive members of society.” Another joked about using chloroform to render women unconscious, a reference to date rape.

We are in a moment when the backlash against misogynistic and hateful online postings is reaching a fevered pitch. Our society has been made aware of the harm that such comments cause. We are no longer repelled by them because they are offensive or off-colour, but because we know that they hurt women directly.

Facing huge pressure to respond, Dr. Florizone could have gone with the prevailing winds by throwing the 13 alleged perpetrators out of Dalhousie, and been done with it. Last year, Allan Rock, the president of the University of Ottawa, did essentially that when he cancelled the men’s hockey program after two team members were charged with sexual assault. The decision to tar many with the alleged crimes of a few was unjust.

Dr. Florizone, in contrast, has launched a victim-led restorative justice process under the university’s sexual harassment policy. He has also announced a faculty-led review of the incident from the perspective of professional requirements.

The reviews begin from the premise that harm has been done, which it clearly has been. But justice will only be served if each of the 13 is heard in a fair and open setting. After that, justice will be best served if anyone found wanting is required to sit uncomfortably across a table from his victims and learn first-hand why his comments were damaging.

Those found responsible for the online comments must show remorse, accept reasonable punitive consequences and apologize. If that happens, Dr. Florizone will have taken an ugly moment and turned it into a teachable one. We call that education.

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