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Public meeting held to discuss threats to civil liberties on campus

Joanna Connolly on freedoms on campus

KEMP

Today a public meeting was held on campus to discuss concerns about growing threats to civil liberties on campus. The meeting comes after the issuance of formal allegations of misconduct against students and staff involved in the protests earlier this year against controversial ex-army officer Richard Kemp. The concern of those present was that the university’s investigation into conduct at the protest undermines academic freedom and free speech.

Senator Lee Rhiannon, NSW Greens, accused Vice Chancellor Michael Spence of dishonesty, using the university’s code of conduct as a cloak to hide behind continued prosecution of people who stand up for Palestinian rights. Sydney University, she said, should not be another vehicle for the “Israel lobby” to stifle the voices of those who speak up. There was “no place for McCarthy-like witch-hunts at this university or any university.”

President of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, Stephen Blanks, said it was particularly important that civil liberties applied properly on the university campus, otherwise the values that the university stood for would be compromised. Where the university had exercised restraint in prosecuting activist students in the past, the same restraint was not evident here. A “university intolerant of minor transgressions will not attract robust thinkers,” he warned, “Just corporate ‘yes people’”.

Julian Burnside and Wendy Bacon both sent messages via videophone. Bacon called upon the university to apologise to the staff member at the centre of allegations, Associate Professor Jake Lynch, for not properly protecting his reputation. Now more than ever, she said, society must stand up and protect universities as sites of inquiry and free-thinking.

In response to the protest today, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence released a statement this afternoon stating that any claim that the allegations brought against staff and students were politically motivated was “simply risble”. “The concern for the University is whether the conduct of those people breached the University’s Codes of Conduct. In fact, by sheer happenstance, people on each side of the debate concerning the merits of Colonel Kemp’s lecture were included in the 13 against whom allegations have been made.”

Yet it was precisely those university codes of conduct that were a central concern to those speaking today. Neither the staff nor student codes acknowledge the right to protest, nor do they provide exemptions for staff or students who transgress provisions within the code, specifically in the course of protesting. Multiple speakers criticised their vague wording, which they claimed risk denying those caught up in investigations proper procedural fairness. Blanks in particular voiced concern that the codes would have a repressive effect as the corporate shift within the University saw institutional support for radical protest increasingly at odds with corporate reputation.

With a gagging order in place on staff member Jake Lynch, English faculty member Nick Reimer spoke in his stead. He criticised the Vice Chancellor for hypocrisy, “demanding the scalps of staff” whilst also claiming to defend free speech on campus. Teaching and research, he told the audience, must not be subject to the political interference of university administrations. By threatening students with disciplinary action, the leaders of the university were re-enforcing the criminalisation of dissent. This made the investigation “an attack on every student here, whatever their views on Palestine.”

When the floor was opened for questions, the debate heated up considerably. Two speakers from the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJA) questioned whether those speaking in favour of free speech extended that right to those who spoke against them. Dr. Avril Alba (Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies) asked if the panel of speakers would also extend support their support to those under investigation who had attended the Kemp protest in support of the Colonel. Responding for the panel, Blanks re-asserted his commitment that fundamental civil liberties be extended to all.

The investigations into conduct at the Kemp protest is ongoing.