Student claims academic a ‘transphobic bigot’ in defamation case

A senior academic accused of being a “transphobic bigot” and defaming a student in an email to colleagues says the case is “vexatious and an abuse of the court’s processes”.

The student has launched defamation proceedings alleging the academic is “prejudiced towards transgender women”.

But the academic strongly refutes the claim, saying the case against them has been “brought for an improper purpose”.

The case is ongoing but at a recent hearing the judge outlined his belief that the student’s allegations and the “overall tenor” of their evidence were “strongly suggestive of a proceeding that is vexatious or frivolous”.

The court action came after the student was suspended from the institution. Suppression orders prevent The New Zealand Herald from publishing any detail that could identify the student or the institution.

A decision by the District Court judge presiding over the case, however, outlines the allegations made by the student, the academic’s response, and the reasons for the suppression order.

The student commenced the defamation proceedings against the academic after an “exchange between the pair” earlier this year.

The academic claimed the student was “aggressive” towards them and “made a file note of [their] perspective of the exchange in an email which [they] sent to four [other employees at the institution]”.

The student alleges the contents of the email were defamatory and told the court the academic “cannot establish that the allegations are true” and is “motivated by malice”.

However, the academic rejected that, denying any “impropriety”.

“[The academic] defends the claim on the bases of truth, qualified privilege and honest opinion … [and] further alleges that the [student] has suffered no damage to [their] reputation as a consequence,” the court documents said.

The student’s case against the academic also includes claims they have:

 - Committed criminal offences

 - Is a “transphobic bigot” who is “flagrantly dishonest”

 - Is prejudiced towards transgender women

The academic said the allegations were “particularly distressing” and sought suppression orders to protect their reputation and that of the institution while the court case was ongoing and before an opportunity to “rebut the claims”.

“Ultimately, [the academic’s] concern is that persons who might learn of the allegations against [them] could consider them to be true before the merits are determined [in court],” said the judge.

The judge said the academic cited several other reasons suppression should be granted in their application including their wellbeing and personal safety - and that of others - may be compromised by publishing their details. The academic also argued publication of their name, and or that of their colleagues and employer, was “unfairly prejudicial and might attract unfair negative publicity”.

The academic argued the student had “made serious and unsubstantiated allegations” that had “been brought for an improper purpose” and were “vexatious and an abuse of the court’s processes”.

Further, the academic said at this stage there was “no public interest in knowing who” they were.

The student represented themselves in court and opposed the suppression orders, arguing that “given the institution and the [academic’s] role within it” that “the public interest is well and truly engaged”.

They also said they had “been in contact with a number of media outlets” about the case.

While the civil case is in its early stages - and will be called again in December - the judge said it was his “very clear view” that there was “no proper factual basis advanced” for the student’s claims the academic committed a criminal offence.

Further, the student’s allegation the academic acted with “malice” amounted “to a gratuitous attack” on the senior staffer.

“For completeness, I note that the [student’s] allegations include [the academic’s]... pleadings are vexatious, frivolous and reflective of the nature of [their] character being entirely devoid of integrity… [the academic] is a morally corrupt transphobic bigot… [the academic] is locally known to have a history of engaging in discriminatory conduct towards anyone who has more depth to their character than a rusty old teaspoon.”

The student also told the court the academic “does not possess the intellectual comprehension to understand the fact that [they are] a morally corrupt transphobic bigot and hates me for standing up to [their] tirade of discriminatory attacks upon my character in a manner that does not enable [them] to continue [their] attempts to make me out to be a violent and aggressive person”.

In his decision, the judge said the email the student alleged was defamatory “does not, on its face, engage in any LGBTQIA+, specifically transgender, issues.

“It is arguable that the issues have been reframed in a manner that does not reflect the underlying facts,” he said.

“The allegations generally, and the overall tenor of [the student’s] pleadings and evidence, are strongly suggestive of a proceeding that is vexatious or frivolous.

“Indeed, the bad faith pleading as it currently stands might be construed as scandalous ... The same could be said for aspects of [the student’s] evidence.”

The judge said by contrast, the academic’s account of the issue “impresses as cogent and measured”.

“The terms of [their] file note do not impress as exaggerated, its dissemination is limited, and appears justified by [their] employer’s health and safety policies.”

The judge noted the institution completed an “internal investigation” after the email was sent and during that, a witness corroborated the academic’s “account of the original interaction”.

As a result, the student was suspended “for a period”.

“There is a particular sting to the allegations made which, if publicised at this juncture, would not be erased in the event that the proceedings were successfully defended,” said the judge.

He agreed that given the nature of the allegations, publishing the academic’s name before the case was resolved would “directly impact” on both their and the institution’s reputation.

“Reputational issues would also necessarily arise for (the institution) which could foreseeably impact on enrolments for 2024,” the judge said.

“Ordinarily, I would hold that publication of the name of a particular state institution that is the subject of legal proceedings would be in the public interest.

“It is the nature of the allegations, my assessment of the relative lack of merit in the [student’s] case, and the potential for an improper motive to be at play that warrant the interim orders at this stage.”

He said any longer-term suppression was dependent on how the case was resolved.

While he placed restrictions on what information could be published, the judge noted “the important role that the media plays in ensuring transparency in court processes”.

 - By Anna Leask