A firm response

It is worth reminding those who participated in the weekend's North Dunedin disturbance of the unequivocal warning issued by Judge Stephen O'Driscoll in the Dunedin court after last year's disorder: There was a clear need to deter students from starting and fuelling fires in North Dunedin, the judge said, and if the university and the community could not stop the disorder, it was appropriate the court do what it could.

Fair warning, one would think, both to the students who this year chose to ignore it, and the non-students who so foolishly decided to get involved.

Add Judge O'Driscoll's remarks to the action by the University of Otago to reinforce its own rules, the Dunedin City Council's special temporary liquor ban imposed in anticipation of this event, and the firm action by police, together with the attendant publicity, then anyone with a modicum of common sense would realise the futility of challenging the rule of law.

Especially of challenging the rule of law in the face of such widespread community anger at that small percentage of students and assorted hangers-on who show no signs of ever growing up.

Well, those who found themselves under arrest may grow up a little faster now: conviction will likely result in consequences with a lengthy shadow.

Breaching the liquor bylaws prohibiting alcohol in a defined area carries fines of up to $300, disorderly behaviour can carry imprisonment or a fine up to $2000; dropping a bottle or litter or throwing a bottle or litter in a public place is punishable by prison or a fine of up to $7500; wilful damage is similarly punishable.

Some professional bodies will refuse entry, or suspend entry, to applicants who have convictions; and convictions can certainly result in the refusal of travel visas to many countries.

No doubt none of these matters troubled the minds of those students who chose to challenge the standards set out by the Dunedin community and representative authorities last week, and no doubt that wonderful benefit, hindsight, will see an outpouring of contrition in the pleas of mitigation.

Nor, we imagine, did they much interfere with the intentions of the non-students who decided to make their contribution to the disorder.

But the freedom to assemble, which is a fundamental right in this democratic country, does not carry with it the freedom for unlawful behaviour.

Nor do our freedom of speech rules include permission to debate with police their lawful order to disperse, nor privacy beliefs include consent to throw bottles from inside the fence.

Those who were arrested, if convicted, fully deserve what the courts will now deliver to them.

Let us not forget, though, that this event was of a much lesser scale than the riot of 2007.

For that the community can thank, in large part, the preparedness of the police and the firm hand they applied.

This time, too, the police were armed with sufficient tools in the form of numbers of officers suitably protected, good intelligence, by-laws, and university backing, to act strongly against the trouble-makers.

That is as it should be.

Those with the responsibility for ameliorating the destructive antics and wanton irresponsibility of elements of the student and general population need the community's backing in forms other than just words of desperation.

It seems to be beyond the grasp of some people that the unconstrained, continuing eruptions of boorish and antisocial behaviour on this scale pose a serious deterrent to potential students and their parents, and that the citizens of Dunedin will not tolerate such a threat to the basis of much of its current and future prosperity.

But the city needs to find ways to engage constructively with the student population for, having created the ghetto that is the student quarter in North Dunedin, it can hardly ignore the consequences of removing the people who temporarily reside there from social normality.

After all, the overwhelming majority of responsible students should not be penalised by the actions of a small and destructive minority.

The Undie 500 has been a student tradition since 1988 and for most of that time has been a positive and colourful event.

If it is to continue, then the city could do worse than host a more formal organisation along wholesome lines, with a central venue for the participants and audience, incorporating entertainment, and with far more of an emphasis on fun, and far less on alcohol.

 

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