A top legal expert has waded into the "racist" cartoon row, by saying the law cannot regulate "ignorant, uninformed, and generally crass behaviour".

University of Canterbury's dean of law, Associate Professor Dr Chris Gallavin, says the application of what some seem to refer to as 'hard law' is not the answer for the "incredibly disappointing" cartoons published this week in the Marlborough Express and The Press.

Al Nisbet's cartoons depict overweight, mainly brown-skinned adults exploiting the Government's breakfast in schools programme.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said she found them personally offensive.


But Dr Gallavin said the argument between those who tussle between freedom of speech and blatant offence is "misguided".

He said it is not simply an issue of suppression or denying a right to express views, however unpopular.

The cartoonist has the right to say what he believes, Dr Gallavin said, but added that the cartoons, and the backing that some sections of society have given to them, has become "incredibly depressing" to him.

"Are we really a nation full of ignorant luddites that believe those in poverty are there because they deserve to be and are in fact having a ball drinking, gambling and partying?" Dr Gallavin wrote in an opinion piece today.

"Have we as a nation who once stood for a fair go, and for seeing all as equal, really moved so far away from understanding our neighbours?

Mr Nisbet said he had received both hate mail and support since the cartoons were published in South Island newspapers The Press and the Marlborough Express.

The Marlborough Express cartoon appeared to show a group of brown-skinned adults in school uniforms taking advantage of the breakfast in schools programme to save money for cigarettes, alcohol and pokies.

The other cartoon, printed in The Press, showed a Maori or Polynesian family discussing how great the free breakfast programme would be to help them ease their poverty, while sitting in front of lottery tickets, cigarettes and empty beer cans.


Mr Nisbet said yesterday (Thur) people were being too precious over the cartoons. He denied he targeted only Pacific Island or Maori people, and pointed out white people were also depicted in the cartoons.

"I was careful about making sure there was a mix in there."

The cartoon was attacking "bludgers", he said.

Dr Gallavin said people being brought up in strong, supporting family environments should be careful when judging people who come from different upbringings.

"So to you who have 'made it', who may now judge that 'if they can't do the same then they are self-obsessed and lazy', your arrogance and ignorance astound me," he wrote.

"Those cartoons reflect an ignorance in New Zealand for which I am ashamed to be associated with but the 'law' is not answer for a lack of sophistication."

Labour Ethnic Affairs spokesman and former Race Relations Conciliator Rajen Prasad said yesterday the cartoons clearly depicted the parents of the children who take up the food in schools scheme as mainly brown, irresponsible and overweight.

"It has hugely racist undertones ."

If Mr Nisbet wanted to make the point that in New Zealand everyone should be able to feed their children because of the welfare state, he could have approached that quite differently, Mr Prasad said.

"He didn't do that - either accidentally or deliberately he maligned these people.

"He gave people licence to discriminate and that's everyday racism, and that's what's objectionable about this."