Tuesday 30 April 2013

A small bit of sanity

Imagine that at some random American university, a student sent an over-the-top ridiculous letter to the student magazine culminating in a threat to shoot up the library. Would you expect:

  1. Nobody to much notice
  2. The police to have a chat with the letter writer
  3. The University to expel the letter writer
  4. The campus to go into lock-down with heightened security. Quadrocopters with cameras watching everybody. 
A police plea for the name of the writer of a letter threatening to unload an automatic assault rifle in Canterbury University's library has been turned down by the institution's students association.
The letter, written anonymously and published in the students association's magazine Canta on March 20, lists a series of gripes the author has about university life, including people who ride bikes on the footpath and students who wear camouflage.
It then reads: "The above things are slowly transforming me from a Gandhi-like character to the kind of guy who is going to walk into James Hight [the library] one day with a fully loaded automatic assault rifle and unload my anger into you."
The letter has also featured on the magazine's website since March 20, but only came to the university's attention when a student's mother complained about it on Friday.
It's not exactly easy to get an automatic assault rifle in New Zealand. Semi-automatic hunting rifles, sure. That plus the basis of complaint being students riding bikes on footpaths... seems pretty unlikely that there's any serious threat.
University Vice-Chancellor Rod Carr said he only became aware of it yesterday and referred the matter to police. "This is a person who needs help," he said. Police university liaison officer Senior Constable Ken Carter said it did not appear any criminal offence had been committed and there was no indication of an immediate or direct threat. But he said such comments were a concern and he could understand how people were anxious about the letter, especially since incidents like the Boston bombings.
The Vice-Chancelleor would have to refer it to the police; it's the police's job to sort out if there's any there there.
Despite police asking for the individual's name, Carter said, the University of Canterbury Students Association (UCSA) had declined to release it on privacy grounds. Since no offence had been committed, police were unable to seek a warrant to force the release of the name.

"We are looking at other options for getting in touch with this person," Carter said. "We would like to speak with them, and hopefully satisfy ourselves that there is no need for concern. If they would like to come forward and contact us, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss the letter and the concerns it raises."
I love that freedom of the press extends to student magazines. And that the Police can't compel production of the writer's name absent there having been an offence.
[UCSA president Erin] Jackson did not respond to questions about why UCSA would not release the name to police. But she did say the last paragraph contained content that "could be interpreted to look like a non-specific threat", but the "tone of the letter was largely hyperbolic".

She said given the tenor of the letter, and UCSA's previous dealings with and knowledge of the author, it was assessed there was no serious threat.

"We are a student magazine that presents the views of all students. Sometimes these views are unpalatable or even offensive to the majority."


Carr said Canta was an independent campus publication and was not censored by the university.

He did not intend to increase security across the campus.
All of this seems sane to me. If you prefer living in a place where the default response would instead be a campus lock-down with SWAT teams all over the darned place, feel free to not emigrate to New Zealand.

Update: The UCSA asked the student to tell the police he's no threat; the student told the police; the UCSA reminded everybody that it was just a silly student letter written 5 weeks ago and that the fooferah is from ONE students' mother who complained to the media. And that's about it.

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