Censure motion stifles speech

USU board members must express their views, writes Tim Scriven.

You’ve probably heard that Tom Raue was censured by the University of Sydney Union (USU) for publicly stating that he opposed the funding of LifeChoice and Interfaith week. A censure motion is a motion of condemnation by the Board. While it doesn’t itself remove a Director, if the Board finds he has breached his duties again, it may then have grounds to remove him.

Board director Tom Raue.

The thrust of the case against Tom had two prongs; firstly that he acted against the interests of the union, secondly that he misrepresented Board policy. It is unclear to me how stating Board policy, being careful to distinguish it from your own opinion, and calling for change constitutes “misrepresentation”.

Nor did he act against the interest of the Board; public debate is in the interest of the Board. The USU is supposed to be based on genuine democracy of the membership. To suggest that a director expressing his personal view to the membership, in order to encourage public debate on the policies of the USU, is an insult to the ideal of member control and participation. A pretend united front by the Board Directors on the other hand, dampens debate, as it makes it appear as if there is no dissent.

Why does the USU feel that a Board Director joining public discussion around its programs is a threat? I would like to imagine the USU is robust enough to tolerate dissent and discussion on these issues. Instead it seems remarkably shy for an organisation that started as a debating society. Interfaith week and LifeChoice are far from core initiatives of the Union; this does not bode well for discussion around the big issues on the horizon like SSAF.

Many of us feel that the way the USU handled the matter was disturbing. In response to public concern about the upcoming motion, the USU released a blog post stating, or at least heavily implying, that Tom had acted in a way worthy of censure. This was before the censure motion had been voted on, which hardly increases one’s confidence in the process.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of the USU’s actions is its naive assumption that censuring a Board Director will protect its brand. The backlash has already been significant. Discussion of the censure motion trended on Twitter. The history of attempts to control image by suppressing speech gives little reason for optimism, as outrage typically strengthens and amplifies the original message.

Tom ran on an explicitly progressive platform and was elected to the Board by progressive students who wanted to be heard. In my view he represented them responsibly, and by no stretch of the imagination did he put the Union under threat.  He was supported by a sizeable constituency when around twenty-five students turned up to support him, a far greater number of ordinary students that one usually sees at Board meetings. He has borne this censure with dignity, but was visibly upset when the motion passed.

Tom deserves our support. Let the union know how you feel: you can contact the president at president@usu.usyd.edu.au.