Jeffrey Omari has been selected as the Visiting Assistant Professor for the Center for Civil and Human Rights for the 2018-19 academic year. A graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, Professor Omari also has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Professor Omari will be teaching one class per semester this year as well as working on his own research and assisting in the activities of the Center.
We asked Professor Omari a few questions about his academic experiences and his journey to Gonzaga.
You just finished your dissertation. What is it about?
My doctoral research examines internet governance in Brazil. The combination of internet governance and Brazil generally elicits a curious response, so allow me to explain. Before beginning my doctoral research, I worked as a transactional music lawyer handling various contract, copyright, trademark, and general business organization issues. During that time, I was also studying the legal issues related to music sampling and remix culture. When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I originally planned to write a thesis about remix culture––the use of digital technology and the internet to create derivate works by combining or editing existing materials to produce new creative works––and its implications on law, culture, and society. From my research on remix culture, I knew of the Brazilian musical genre called tecno brega (music aficionados should Google that term and have a listen). This was around 2010. From my familiarity with Brazil, I learned that Brazilian legislators were attempting to pass a democratic framework for internet law in that country, which they championed as an “internet bill of rights.” This internet law was an appealing research topic to me personally because it encompasses the intellectual property (IP) issues I addressed in my work as an attorney, but is also much broader in that it regulates online privacy, protects net neutrality, and provides that internet access is a civil right in Brazil.
Brazil is thus an ideal place to study internet governance because it is one of the few countries in the world that has codified a comprehensive legal framework for the internet rights of its citizens. In 2014, the Brazilian Congress passed this internet bill of rights, formally known as O Marco Civil da Internet (MCI). The law also provides guidelines for a number of other legal issues in the online realm, such as fostering freedom of speech and expression on the internet. My work examines how this law impacts Brazil’s poor and working class citizens and the challenges that must be overcome for the MCI to fulfill its democratic promise.
Between 2012 and 2015, I spent 18 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork in São Paulo and, primarily, Rio de Janeiro. In addition to the time I spent in Rio’s favelas (informal, historically low-income communities) and other poor and working class neighborhoods, I also studied as an affiliated researcher at a Brazilian law school, Fundação Getúlio Vargas Direito (FGV Law School), which informs my understanding of law and legal education from a transnational perspective. An article based on my fieldwork is forthcoming this fall in the peer-reviewed journal PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review.
What drew you to apply to be a Visiting Assistant Professor at Gonzaga?
I was drawn to the VAP at Gonzaga Law because it’s specifically situated in the law school’s new Center for Civil and Human Rights. As a lawyer and legal anthropologist, my interdisciplinary research on internet governance is transnational and investigates the idea of internet access as both a civil and human right. Many law schools in the U.S. focus solely on domestic scholarship. However, because human rights are an international discourse, I knew my work would be a good fit for the Center. Its mission is to further the policy and practice of human rights and it welcomes transnational, interdisciplinary scholarship in furtherance of this mission.
Additionally, although I moved here to Spokane after completing a dissertation fellowship in Chicago, I did my doctoral work at UC Santa Cruz and have lived in California for most of my adult life. Moving to Spokane was thus a great opportunity to get acquainted with a different area of the west coast.
What classes will you be teaching here, and why are these important subjects for law students to study?
This fall I am teaching Constitutional Law II, which focuses on individual rights and liberties. The primary topics we will cover include equal protection, substantive due process, and First Amendment freedoms. Reading the news each day should underscore the salience of these topics in our current political climate. Constitutional Law is also a fundamental course for any law student because our system of government is based on the rights, principles, and responsibilities outlined in the constitution. Moreover, it’s a bar exam topic, which, from a student’s perspective, makes it a substantive area of the law to know and understand for the years to come.
Next semester I’m teaching Privacy Law, which should be a lot of fun considering our current digital climate. Terms like “Big Data” and “digital footprint” are prominent in today’s headlines that are often filled with reports of new threats and invasions of privacy from governments, corporations, and hackers (both individual and collective) who have access to and control over our personal information. While a certain amount of information disclosure is necessary in civil society, each of these actors takes advantage of new technology, using the internet and breaches in “Big Data” security, to efficiently take advantage of citizens and their digital rights. Additionally, business and tech companies are increasingly incorporating privacy clauses into their contractual agreements to protect their IP, trade secrets, and other proprietary information. Consequently, understanding privacy law is important in one’s personal life and in professional legal environments as well.
"Constitutional Law is also a fundamental course for any law student because our system of government is based on the rights, principles, and responsibilities outlined in the constitution."
How does your study and background in anthropology inform your understanding of the law?
By furthering my understanding of the socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors that shape various laws and legislative processes, studying anthropology has helped me view the law more holistically.
Broadly speaking, anthropology is the study of human cultures and behavior. The stereotype associated with anthropologists is that we study native peoples or indigenous tribes in remote regions of the world. While that may have been the case historically, in the last few decades there has been a shift in the discipline from focusing on vanishing cultures to studying the emerging worlds that are shaping our future. By studying the intersection of digital technology and law, my research is consistent with this emerging worlds theme.
Anthropologists generally employ ethnographic methods in their research. This means that we may use any or all of the following research tools: participant observation, formal and semi-structured interviews, discourse analysis, archival research, surveys, and, in some cases, even doctrinal research. From a methodological perspective, these ethnographic tools allow anthropologists (and other researchers who use ethnographic methods) to employ experienced-based inquiry into the interpretative, institutional, and relational makings of their research subjects (in my case, law and technology).
For instance, just as lawyers interview their clients to gather the facts of a particular case, anthropologists interview their interlocutors to glean information not only from the words spoken in these interviews, but also from the environments in which the interviews take place, the body language of those being interviewed, and even the sensory perceptions (e.g., how did a certain place look, smell, or feel, and how might these sensory perceptions have affected the interviewee?) of their surroundings. Employing the various ethnographic tools to my research enables me to see how law shapes culture and society and also how culture and society, in many ways, shapes the law.
What advice do you have for students just starting law school?
I would encourage new law students to get to know their professors. Not only will their professors be able to assist students with any substantive questions or issues they may have in their classes, but law professors can also be good professional resources for networking or discovering professional opportunities. Moreover, when students need letters of recommendation, professors are more inclined to write positive letters for students they know or have a professional relationship with.
Taking a cue from Professor Christopher Lynch, I would also suggest that incoming students read each assignment three times. One reading of the materials is never enough for most new students. Two readings may be sufficient for some. However, three readings should give students a thorough understanding of topics covered. These detailed readings, coupled with diligent note taking/case briefing, will prepare students to effectively participate in class discussions. After a few weeks of class, students can adjust this strategy if they find themselves over prepared.
Finally, I would encourage students to dream broadly about the things they can achieve with a law degree. In addition to more conventional legal employment, I have friends and colleagues that have parlayed their law degrees into successful careers as musicians, journalists, photographers, authors, and entrepreneurs. Enjoy the journey because the sky is the limit.