Week in Review

Pressure builds over offensive law revue

The fallout continues for the university law club show that mocked a deaf student, the Treaty, and former Prime Minister Helen Clark. David Williams reports.

University of Canterbury’s vice-chancellor confirms there’s a fresh complaint about a now infamous law revue.

The show, spanning three nights a fortnight ago, was put on by Lawsoc, the university’s largest student law club, and attended by more than 900 people. It has been panned as sexist, racist and cruel – and a sign of how far the legal fraternity has to go in the wake of “Me Too”, and the Russell McVeagh scandal broken by Newsroom.

Lawsoc apologised on social media because the show made fun of partially deaf student Raymond Ellwood. The apology only came after Ellwood complained to the university, and Law School acting dean Professor Elizabeth Toomey convened an informal crisis meeting.

(Last Friday night, after a Newshub story aired, Lawsoc amended its apology to remove the names of president Will Chambers, and law revue producer and directors Robert Petch, Sam McLean and Tash Ryan. Petch will replace Chambers as Lawsoc president next year, while Ryan has been elected vice president.)

Vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Ray, who started the job in February, tells Newsroom a complaint about the show has now been received by a proctor and “due process will be followed”.

Like Toomey, De la Rey responded via email, and wouldn’t say if she found the show’s content acceptable. “My vision as vice-chancellor is for UC to support a diverse, inclusive learning community where we respect the right to free expression with the responsibility to express opinions in a respectful manner.”

Song lyrics from the Lawsoc law revue show.

The university has been criticised online – including on university-related message boards and social media pages – for not taking a tougher stance over the show. Pressure has also been applied to national law firm Chapman Tripp to drop its sponsorship.

Yesterday, Deaf Action New Zealand’s Kim Robinson posted on social media a copy of its letter to the university’s chancellor Sue McCormack, which says discrimination against Ellwood breached human rights laws.

“The law students seem to have a very negative attitude towards the deaf community, which is one we have battled against, and to have this happen is like a slap to our faces,” the letter says. “We, Deaf Action, demand that the law students are brought to account by apologising personally and individually to Raymond Ellwood, and indeed to the deaf community.”

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark – who was mocked in a sneering, laddish way during the Lawsoc show – said on Twitter that Newsroom’s story confirms the university hasn’t dealt seriously with the offensive behaviour by the law students’ society.

“Yet the behaviour concerned was racist, abusive of a person with disability, and misogynistic”. She finished: “Time UCNZ stood up.” Last weekend she’d called on Chapman Tripp to re-think its sponsorship.

“The actions of this law revue have also shown, yet again, how far our profession has to improve.” – Hayley Coles

Hayley Coles, interim president of the newly formed Aotearoa Legal Workers’ Union, told Newsroom via email that the show crossed the line from jokes to bullying. “The actions of this law revue have also shown, yet again, how far our profession has to improve.”

It wasn’t all one-way traffic. Wellington lawyer Stephen Franks, a former partner and chairman of Chapman Tripp, issued a statement on behalf of the Free Speech Coalition urging the university to “resist bullying calls to suppress student freedom of speech”.

Some pressure on the University of Canterbury has come from within.

Matthew Scobie, a lecturer in organisational accountability, said on Twitter that Newsroom’s story showed the university has more work to do, given its commitment to bicultural competence and confidence.

Associate professor of politics Bronwyn Hayward took to the same medium to thank Ellwood for his courage. “I, like so many colleagues, could not be more personally devastated to hear the events of last week,” she said last Saturday.

Māori law academic appointed

One of the law revue’s skits labelled as irrelevant a third-year paper on Treaty of Waitangi settlement negotiations. It’s the institution’s only Te Tiriti-specific course, and is taken by a lecturer from the Ngāi Tahu Research Centre.

Newsroom asked the university to explain why several Māori and Treaty courses aren’t being offered this year, and asked if it had a problem attracting Māori lecturers to the Law School.

Pro-vice-chancellor of the college of business and law, Professor Sonia Mazey, responds via email that the university is “committed and working with our kaiārahi to increase and embed bicultural competence into the LLB curriculum”.

“This commitment is reflected in the recent appointment of a new Māori law academic specifically to teach land law, joining us in January 2020. We welcome our close collaboration with the UC Ngāi Tahu Research Centre (NTRC), and a number of UC law academics collaborate with colleagues in the NTRC.”

In Monday’s story, Lawsoc president Chambers rejected allegations of racism and sexism as “exaggerated or false”. He told Newsroom via email that the law revue was about “satirically subverting” sexist and racist tropes.

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