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Students punished for ‘offensive’ law revue

University of Canterbury’s proctor has disciplined law students over a tasteless show that bullied a disabled student. David Williams reports.

Some law students involved in a “disgusting” revue show will have a 10-year stain on their university record.

University of Canterbury law club Lawsoc attracted more than 900 people to its three-night skit show in Christchurch last month. It made television news for mocking partially deaf student Raymond Ellwood – after which the club apologised on Facebook. Other parts of the show, dubbed “disgusting” by one attendee, were criticised for being sexist and racist.

Pressure was put on law firms Chapman Tripp, Young Hunter Lawyers and Wynn Williams to pull their sponsorship.

The university’s proctor, Dr Deidre Hart, investigated a complaint about the show from one of its own – Bronwyn Hayward, an associate professor of political science and international relations.

Registrar Jeff Field wrote to students this week stating that a number of Lawsoc members involved in the show were found to have breached discipline regulations.

“Each student will complete, to varying degrees, an academic essay and information sheet where they will explore social concepts such as harassment, bullying, empathy and wellbeing and how erosion or enhancement of these aspects contributes to wellbeing and community. Students will also participate in community service activities through the Student Volunteer Army, and their names and conduct will be recorded on the university discipline register for 10 years.”

Field wrote that the university doesn’t condone harassment, bullying or discrimination that may offend, humiliate or intimidate others, and may interfere with a person’s right to work or study in a non-threatening environment. “Although we do not act as censors, one of our roles in pastoral care of our students is to censure behaviour that does not meet the expectations of our community. We intend to use this matter to strengthen our resolve of being a diverse and inclusive campus.”

Newsroom asked university communications and external relations manager Jayne Austin how many students were disciplined, when the complaint was made, when Hart made her decision, which regulations were breached, and how many hours of community service activities the students must complete. No response was received by publication deadline – although the university is also dealing with the harrowing death of a student at a university hall of residence run by external company Campus Living Villages.

Investigation ‘thoughtful and fair’

Ellwood says in an emailed statement he welcomes the conclusion of the “thoughtful and fair” investigation, and he’s looking forward to moving on with his degree.

“I am thankful for the support from senior staff members of the university and friends,” he says. “In light of recent events, it is important to care and value each person in our community.”

He adds: “Lawsoc must have a range of different people.”

Soon after the shows, Lawsoc president Will Chambers and show producer and directors Robert Petch, Sam McLean and Tash Ryan apologised to Ellwood on Facebook, but only after Ellwood complained to the university and a crisis meeting was convened by acting Law School dean Professor Elizabeth Toomey. Future shows will be reviewed by an external person.

Chambers was defensive when contacted by Newsroom last month, saying the club, which has more than 700 members, only received one complaint, about a “personal parody”, and it reached an agreement “which all parties were satisfied with”. (Ellwood accused the club of “just paying lip service”.)

Allegations of racism and sexism were exaggerated or false, he said at the time. “Half of the cast and the majority of the production team were female. Lawsoc is an extremely well-engaged club and provides a wide range of initiatives to cater to our diverse membership.”

Chambers – who will be replaced by Petch next year – strikes a different tone via email yesterday: “I am confident that the learnings from this process will make a positive, ongoing difference to the culture of our club.”

Lawsoc is affiliated with the university’s students’ association, UCSA. President Sam Brosnahan says he’s sure Lawsoc will learn from the experience. “This also gives the UC community a timely opportunity to reflect on how we all need to be part of building a more inclusive environment,” he says in an email.

Bullying was scripted, rehearsed, repeated

Hayward, who didn’t attend the law revue, made the complaint to the proctor in a personal capacity. She says the consequences of the investigation are proportionate.

“It was a serious offence. Because it was scripted, rehearsed, and repeated, that added to the harm. I’m proud that the University of Canterbury supports an inclusive education policy.

“And while I really value freedom of speech, and conscience and critic, that also comes with the understanding the responsibilities of that speech, in particular not to do harm, harassment and bullying. I think that’s a particularly difficult ethical lesson for new lawyers.”

Freedom of speech was raised last month by Wellington lawyer Stephen Franks, a former partner and chairman of Chapman Tripp. On behalf of the Free Speech Coalition, he urged the university to “resist bullying calls to suppress student freedom of speech”.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, however. Hayward says the ability to be offensive should be protected – because difficult issues are going to offend people. “That is hugely different from picking on an individual.”

She was disappointed the university’s code of conduct wasn’t immediately invoked after the initial complaint about the law revue. She calls the situation a teachable moment. Universities across the country, and other big organisations, like law firms, and city councils, have codes of conduct, Hayward says. “The next thing is to make them work.”

University staff can also learn from students, Hayward says. “I have admired the professionalism, the courage, and the calmness with which Raymond Ellwood has dealt with a really difficult situation. And I look forward to working with the rest of the university to support the vice chancellor’s vision for inclusive education.”

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