A university law club is defending its annual revue show, which has been labelled sexist, racist and cruel. But there are already promises for greater oversight next year, after organisers were forced to apologise for the “offensive” show. Sponsor Chapman Tripp, the country’s largest commercial law firm, says it has some concerns.

Lawsoc is the University of Canterbury’s largest law student club, with more than 700 members. Its annual stage show, held over three nights, has been running for 28 years and is attended by more than 900 people. About half are club members, with the rest made up of alumni, lawyers, and students from elsewhere on campus.

The Law Revue is meant to be satirical, poking fun at authority and political correctness. But this year’s edition prompted walk-outs, a complaint and an apology.

Law student Marama Aubrey has attended past shows and says they were brilliant. Of this one, she says: “The whole show was disgusting.”

A song, to the tune of the Wham! hit Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, panned a university paper about the Treaty of Waitangi as irrelevant. Lines include “Been so long since the Waitangi fight” and “Because the Government’s always the one to blame”. Aubrey, who belongs to a different law club, says white-looking Māori were mocked and she was told about a skit – which occurred after she’d walked out – in which a police officer doesn’t arrest a bunch of European New Zealanders because “you’re not tangata whenua”.

“I’ve never felt so ashamed to be a Māori in my life,” Aubrey says. “They just crossed every line imaginable.”

A poster advertising the offending show.

The Law Revue’s theme was “Attorneyman”, a send-up of the Will Ferrell movie Anchorman. A description of the show says: “When Veronica joins the firm Ron’s title is under threat. His position in the top perch is rocked and he’s forced to reassess the male-dominated culture he’s become so comfortable with.”

In one skit, a male cast member says it’s not cool to have men in power anymore and a male lawyer was made to castrate himself and donate his testicles to former Prime Minister Helen Clark because “she wants to turn back into a man”. One scene depicted a couple having sex on a law firm table – which seems ill-judged in the wake of the Russell McVeagh scandal, broken by Newsroom.

Lawsoc president Will Chambers, who refused an interview and emailed responses to Newsroom’s questions, rejects allegations of sexism and racism. He says the show was about “satirically subverting” sexist and racist tropes. “None of the men, women, and tangata whenua in our cast and crew would allow Lawsoc to put on a performance such as you have described.”

However, Chambers and show producer and directors Robert Petch, Sam McLean and Tash Ryan have been forced to apologise to Raymond Ellwood, a former member of the University of Canterbury Students’ Association’s (UCSA) general executive. Ellwood’s friend Kelly Phillips says the on-stage depiction – which named the character as “Raymond” – had him twitching and talking strangely, and poked fun at his falling out with the association. Ellwood is deaf in one ear.

“I cannot for the life of me understand why you’d want to be so cruel and nasty against somebody that had never harmed you,” Phillips says.

Aubrey, who attended the show, says: “They took it out on our race, nothing compares to what they did to him.”

Ellwood, who didn’t attend the show, subsequently complained. “Every time I think about it I do get angry,” he tells Newsroom.

What the organisers probably didn’t know, he says, with tears in his eyes, is that he’s half-Tongan and never knew his mother. “You can’t celebrate culture. It’s offensive to me too. I only know my European side. It’s upsetting.”

Significant error

Ellwood complained to the university, and Law School acting dean Professor Elizabeth Toomey facilitated a crisis meeting with Chambers. After the meeting, Lawsoc issued an apology on its Facebook page, calling the skit a “significant error of judgement”.

Humiliating individuals is not in the spirit of the Law Revue, the apology said. In future, the post said, prior to the show all content will be reviewed by both an independent external person and, “where appropriate and possible”, individuals who are referred to.

Asked if Lawsoc did anything wrong, Chambers replied via email that his club only received one complaint, about a personal parody. “Lawsoc reached an agreement with the complainant which all parties were satisfied with”.

However, Ellwood says: “They were just paying lip service.”

Phillips, who attended the meeting as her friend’s support person, says Chambers didn’t seem sorry and tried to justify elements of the show she found offensive. “This wasn’t ‘I’m sorry, we realise what we’ve done is wrong’, this was ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’.”

She adds: “This has hurt a lot of people. You’ve taken everything that I have struggled against my whole life and mocked it, and made it seem like it doesn’t matter.”

Lawsoc is a UCSA-affiliated club, but association president Sam Brosnahan has little to say. “Yes I am aware of the Law Revue situation,” he writes in an email. “I believe the university and law society have been responding to the situation and I will leave any comments to be made from UC and/or Lawsoc at this stage.”

‘We aren’t censors’

Toomey, the acting Law School dean, wouldn’t agree to an interview, and would only answer emailed questions. She didn’t attend the show and refuses to say if she found its content acceptable.

“The annual Lawsoc comedy revue is run by and primarily for students. We do not play the role of censor.”

If the university isn’t responsible for the show, why facilitate a meeting? She says she did so out of concern for Ellwood.

“The student’s complaint related to Lawsoc, which is a significant law student club. As [acting] Dean of Law, I thought it appropriate to address the student’s concern by facilitating a meeting between the parties. The student agreed to the meeting, the result of which was Lawsoc’s public apology.”

Asked if the university is taking any action, she replies: “The complainant requested a public apology from Lawsoc which has been fulfilled.”

This is partially true.

Ellwood says he initially wanted an apology from all the cast members in the offending skit and asked for Lawsoc to face a financial penalty – which he wanted paid to Te Pūtairiki: Māori Law Students’ Association, of which Aubrey is president. (Her comments about the show are personal, not on behalf of the club.)

Concern over complaint

Karine Fox is the senior communications manager for Chapman Tripp, the show’s sponsor and the country’s largest commercial law firm. She says the firm was concerned to learn of Ellwood’s complaint.

“We sponsor Lawsoc in putting on these performances, and we will be discussing this item in the context of all performances needing to meet agreed community standards. Neither myself nor the Chapman Tripp management team have seen the revue, although I have since learned one member of staff in Christchurch may have attended.”

Newsroom asked Lawsoc president Chambers what it says about the culture and possibly the diversity of Lawsoc, that, in the wake of “Me Too”, the Russell McVeagh scandal, and the Christchurch terrorist attack, such an offensive show was allowed on stage?

He replies that the show was put together by a cast of law 37 students representing a range of sexual orientations and ethnicities. “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.”

As to specific allegations of racism and sexism, he says Lawsoc refutes them as “exaggerated or false”.

Sent details about the specific skits, he repeats that the racist allegations are “false” and the term “snowflake” was never specifically used. “The content of the show has been grossly misrepresented to you. The complainant (who did not attend the show) never complained about this content to us in our meeting or by email.”

* This story has been updated to correct that Raymond Ellwood was not a former UCSA president.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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