Law school good deed ends with (what else?) talk of suit

October 26, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

LEAVE IT TO a bunch of lawyers to ponder the female breast and turn such beauty, and such vulnerability, into a legal debate. They're doing this now at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where some professors have taken a gesture of charity and made it sound like soft porn.

This started with the sweetest of gestures: an attempt by the school's law fraternity, Sigma Delta Kappa, to raise money for breast cancer research. Members organized a Canton pub crawl, which is set for Thursday. Then they wondered: How should we advertise the event?

"How about a group photo?" said Rose Forrest, a third-year law student who is the fraternity president. "We could put the photo on posters and put the posters up all around school."

"Great idea," said Stacy Volovar, a third-year law student who is philanthropic chairwoman of the fraternity. It was Volovar's mother, Bonnie, a breast cancer survivor, whose ordeal inspired the fund-raising drive. The photo would show six young ladies - all fraternity members, all organizers of the event, and several of whom have a history of breast cancer in their families - dressed appropriately for a night on the town. That is, for a pub crawl. And a caption would read: "Save the Breasts."

"And that was the whole thing," Volovar was saying yesterday. "We thought, the best way to advertise an event is to personalize it. So we said, `Let's dress up, and let's wear pink, because pink is the color for breast cancer awareness. And wear skirts and tops so we'd look nice.' Nobody said, `Look provocative.' Nobody said, `Look sexy.' We just wanted to look nice and catch people's attention."

That it did.

About a dozen posters went up on Tuesday, Oct. 5, on bulletin boards around the school. By Thursday, they had been torn down. And then it got really nasty.

One law school professor passed the photo around class, angrily decrying it as "objectifying women." Another sent e-mails to the entire faculty, decrying "the crudeness of the message" and the inappropriateness of tying a pub crawl to breast cancer.

When word reached Ken Bogdan, alumni adviser to the law fraternity, he said, "Let me see the poster." Volovar handed it to him.

Bogdan said, "OK, now let me see the controversial photo."

"You're looking at it," said Volovar.

"This?" said Bogdan, who couldn't believe it.

One professor messaged Tony Torain, dean of admissions and student services, about "a number of female law students in low cut blouses," saying such a display made it easy to "objectify women in our society, given the University's willingness to approve such flyers."

In a telephone interview yesterday, Torain heaved a sigh and said, "This is a wonderful opportunity to debate and argue how the First Amendment should work. That's my position. Discussion is good. Debate is excellent. I am not taking sides in this issue."

While Torain ducks for cover, others are choosing up sides - or trying to see both sides.

Susan Luchey, director of student involvement, e-mailed one offended professor this way: "It is in bad taste. ... Women are fighting to be taken seriously. ... Photographs such as this do nothing to promote the professionalism of these young women as serious law students. ... [But] we are a public university, and the First Amendment must be alive and well on our campus."

Meanwhile, the young women in the photograph, believing they have been libeled, and believing their First Amendment right to free speech has been violated, are now talking about filing a lawsuit.

"We've been meeting with faculty and administrators," fraternity President Rose Forrest was saying yesterday. "We're a law fraternity, so we understand how these things work. We know that you have to exhaust all administrative remedies before filing suit. But we're compiling the paperwork and filling it out.

"We believe there are issues of libel and slander here, and First Amendment rights. And we know that we lost weeks of advertising, because the posters were torn down and we were tied up in meetings to resolve this when we could have been raising money."

"This isn't just removal of posters," added Volovar. "It's accusations and conclusions that were made against us. Look, we know there are sensitivities in this culture. We know how women are treated. We also know that there are women who want to hide their breasts, who are afraid of breast exams. If people don't talk about this, it's never going to improve."

"Unbelievable, isn't it?" alumni adviser Bogdan said yesterday. "When I heard the posters had been torn down, and professors were upset, I thought, `What have they done? It must be pretty inappropriate.' And then I see what it is. There's nothing that's offensive in any way. The photo says, `We're getting dressed up. Come join us.' And people in the faculty have sent out these mass e-mails denigrating them, when they should be apologizing to them."

One last thing: Volovar's mother, whose breast cancer struggle inspired the drive, sent this message to her daughter: "There's nothing illegal or harmful in your advertising! I salute you and your friends and wish you luck and prayers for your legal battle."

Regarding the beauty, and the vulnerability, of the human breast, this is not precisely the language of poetry. But it beats the hell out of legalisms.

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