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GIPA documents shed further light on Sydney University’s approach to protesters and police

Documents from later education protests last year cement a picture of the University’s antagonistic attitude towards student activists and willingness for police intervention.

Photo: Aman Kapoor

Documents obtained under GIPA reveal further information about the University’s communications with police during last year’s 3 November protest against cuts to the School of Medical Science and the occupation of the Michael Spence (F23) Building.

The documents requested were substantially redacted due to concerns their release would impair the security of the University by making public its practical and operational arrangements. This includes communications between security staff or with police concerning the management of protests, much of which remains undisclosed.

In May 2021, GIPA documents revealed the extensive surveillance of staff and student protests from 28 August to 14 October, including the use of AI technology Dataminr. Further information about later protests cements a picture of the University’s antagonistic attitude towards student activists and willingness for police intervention when faced with disruption to business as usual. This is despite the University publicly claiming to support students’ rights to exercise free speech.

University notified police about protest against Medical Science cuts

On 30 October, Alex Liouthakis of the Inner West Police emailed the University’s Head of Protective Services and Emergency Management Sarah Holmes to provide a link to the Facebook events for upcoming protests. The email suggests the existence of prior conversations where student protests were discussed with police, who had monitored the Education Action Group’s social media activity.

On 2 November, David Catron of Inner West Police emailed Holmes, inquiring whether the University was “in a position to provide us a copy of the Covid Safety Plan or advise who the organisers of the event are so we can contact them directly to obtain a copy.” Holmes then informed the police that the University didn’t know who the organisers were or had access to any Covid Safety plans. This suggests that the University may have provided students’ names to the police had they been aware of who the organisers were in this instance.

Police presence on campus during the 3 November protest was limited in contrast to previous protests. Additionally, Director of Asset Management & Operations Ben Hoyle sent SMS messages informing his colleagues that there were no police on University grounds, indicating that the University did not invite them onto campus in this instance. It should be noted that this event followed negative press coverage of police brutality on campus as well as the easing of Covid restrictions on outdoor gatherings. 

However, when around 100 protesters took to City Road, Hoyle sent an SMS indicating that police had been “notify [sic]” because the protest had become a “safety risk” and impacted traffic. Presumably following communications with University security — who protesters observed speaking on walkie talkies at the time — around 30 police officers in riot gear quickly arrived at the scene and were very brutal, roughly shoving students off the road. The University failed to respond to Honi’s request for confirmation on whether they called the police during this protest, stating that the “University involves government agencies in protests only when it is essential for safety reasons.”  

Last year’s SRC Education Officer and protest organiser Jazzlyn Breen told Honi “I find it quite ironic and almost hard to believe that the same University management who had seen police officers for numerous weeks violently attack students for protesting, still thought it was a good idea to notify police that students were on the road because they were worried about our safety. We’re talking phones smashed, arms twisted, people pushed onto concrete, massive scrapes and grazes, panic attacks.”

“The only thing that was posing a safety risk was the police being there.”

After protesters were forced off the road, Hoyle informed Vice-Principal (Operations) Stephen Phillips that they had returned onto campus and were walking past Chau Chak Wing Museum, to which he responded asking if they were “behaving.” Despite the protest continuing peacefully in the Quadrangle, Hoyle responded “No” and sent further updates indicating that security was closely “monitoring [the] movements” of students across campus.

Following the protest, Hoyle sent an email to Secretary to Senate David Pacey and Chief of Staff to the Vice-Chancellor Kirsten Andrews informing them that a “protest occurred from 12:30pm today and freedom of speech on campus was well controlled, except when the protesters moved onto city road to stopped [sic] traffic, put themselves in considerable risk.”

Senior staff’s use of such language as ‘well controlled’ and students not ‘behaving’ in relation to the exercise of free speech is further indication of their antagonism towards campus protests against the attacks on higher education last year. The bizarre turn of phrase points to a much deeper problem where ‘freedom of speech’ is only acceptable so long as it doesn’t disrupt the status quo of the University, remaining within their ‘control’ to quash with force.

Senior staff praised police in internal messages for “fantastic job” shutting down F23 occupation

On 28 October, following the spontaneous occupation of the F23 Building, Hoyle sent an SMS to Phillips stating that “Students are indicating they are remaining until we call the police. We have reiterated we will not be calling the police.” Phillips responded: “Yep we are not calling the police.” The SMS conversation was disclosed only in part, with several short messages and a long message redacted due to concerns it would prejudice the University’s security procedures.

The content of these messages or the phone call with Holmes is unknown. However, just hours later at 6pm, an anonymous source contacted a protest organiser informing them that administration staff had been told to evacuate and heard that “police may be called.” Another source contacted the organiser, worried that police would arrive shortly to “forcibly remove” students. The protesters became aware that the building was being locked down and soon afterwards, at 6:30 pm, police came onto campus and explicitly informed them that “the University [has] revoked their consent for you to be here.” This change in approach may have occurred because five students from the crowd outside the building had pushed past security and carried supplies including food and bedding to the top floor, indicating that they would occupy the building overnight.

In a statement to Honi, a University spokesperson said “On the night of the protest at the Michael Spence Building, NSW Police were asked to help staff leave the building safely. At no point did we ask for any protesters to be removed from the building, as we support their right to safe freedom of speech.” However, protesters were given the impression that they had to leave or else police would come upstairs to forcibly remove them. This is also evident in Hoyle’s SMS messages stating that “The police have given the students ten minutes to come out or they are going in to get them out.” 

In further SMS messages after students left, Hoyle said “It should be noted that the police did a fantastic job … All over and building is secure.”

The University appears to have taken a more cautious approach to its communications with police more recently, suggesting that either their self-described “close working relationship” has changed or that they have been careful to keep it off the record following backlash for previous collaborations. In 2013, Honi obtained emails where the Vice-Chancellor personally thanked police for supporting them to break NTEU strikes where students were brutalised, even offering to buy a milkshake for Superintendent Simon Hardman who was later hired as Head of Campus Security. In October 2020, documents obtained by activist Adam Adelpour from May appeared to show the University collaborating with Inner West Police by asking to “meet and formulate a planned response” after a protest where students briefly occupied City Road, as well as sharing CCTV footage of protesters.

The University’s willingness to continue discussing information about protest plans with Inner West Police, despite well-documented previous instances where they had brutalised students and staff, cements further evidence of their complicity in violence inflicted on student activists in and around campus.