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 ‘If you don’t have a right to protest, you can’t resist’: Student forum support freedom of speech

Yesterday, in light of suspensions against USyd’s Deaglan Godwin, Maddie Clark and the arrest of UNSW SRC Education Officer Cherish Kuehlmann, a student forum spoke on free speech and agitating against NSW’s restrictive anti-protest laws.

Dozens of students gathered today at a forum to discuss freedom of speech and protest rights following a spate of suspensions and police arrests targeting student activists.

A few weeks ago, USyd NUS Delegate Deaglan Godwin and USyd SRC Environment Officer Maddie Clark were suspended by Sydney University for protesting a Sydney University Law Society (SULS) event featuring former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“We shouldn’t forget the crimes of politicians even when they’ve left office,”  Clark said    “One thing that’s been in the news recently is with the Royal Commission into Robodebt which saw hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients get a debt notice.”

Clark criticised USyd’s use of the Student Charter as a de facto “bullying code” deployed against student activists, raising that Sydney University alleged that Godwin, Clark and the protest infringed upon Turnbull’s free speech.

Among the panel was UNSW SRC Education Officer Cherish Kuehlmann was arrested for a protest outside of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) last month

“We protested both the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the $5.5 billion in half-year record profits they’ve reported.

Kuehlmann raised the discrepancy between the federal government’s recent approval of $318 billion for AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines and the cost of living crisis affecting students as the reason behind the protest at the Reserve Bank and Commonwealth Bank.

“These beautiful mansions that they live in. Meanwhile, students and young workers are having to line up, I’m sure everyone knows someone who has experienced this.”

“They showed up to my door six hours later in the middle of the night when I wasn’t around the public, the media, my comrades and others at the protest. This was to single me out and make an example out of me and silence me.”

Kuelhmann then delivered a call to action to students, saying that mass organising and protests is vital to securing meaningful political change and challenging the status quo.

“That’s the only avenue we have to fight for any sort of change in society.”

Award-winning journalist, activist and former Tharunka editor Wendy Bacon, noted for being  imprisoned for eight days following the publication of a poem in 1970 under NSW’s strict anti-obscenity laws, supported Godwin and Clark, described Turnbull’s and USyd’s case against the pair as “ludicrous”.

“Honestly, who gives a stuff. He retreated into a little schoolboy debater when he was at Sydney University. I think it’s ludicrous. What I find really fascist is the whole idea that the University expects everyone not to complain. The idea of a corporate university is much closer to fascism than anything.”

“If you don’t have a right to protest, you can’t resist,” she said.

Concurring with Bacon, NSW Senator David Shoebridge spoke on the necessity of protest as a vehicle to drive social change and political progress.  

“Ultimately, the right to protest is where somebody with substantially less power gets to actually challenge in an observable way where people can see and witness the challenge.”

Shoebridge highlights the “moment of equality” created by “friction” caused by protests and public challenges, noting Turnbull’s high profile in comparison with Godwin and Clark. He argues that anti-protest laws, with the backing of “corporate Australia”, were “a repressive piece of social engineering to retain power and wealth”.

“All of those laws were passed by State Parliaments under pressure from fossil fuel and extractive industries, they passed [these] under pressure because they were feeling the political heat on the ground, who were disrupting their commercial activities and building a case against them in the court of public opinion.”

Clark agreed, pointing to Turnbull’s access to mainstream media and being a former PM: “The right to free speech is something the left has historically always taken up. Turnbull has all of this free speech because he actually has a platform, he’s very wealthy himself.”

Panellists then referenced Deanna “Violet” Coco’s successful appeal against a 15-months jail sentence from the Magistrates Court. She was the first person to be sentenced under NSW’s highly restrictive anti-protest laws widely dubbed as an “intimidating” tactic against activists.

“It worries me a lot with these very tough penalties [for protests]. What they want is a sort of protest where you sit down and have a talk with the police and the protesters, and you’re told exactly where you can be. That is not a protest, a protest involves huge disruption.”

Shoebridge then expanded on being arrested outside of Kirribilli House – the Prime Minister’s residence in Sydney – during the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires when former PM Scott Morrison was away in Hawaii.

“I turned up with my youngest daughter. We went across and there were rows and rows of riot squads all lined up,” He said. “I said: ‘What are you doing? You can’t send the riot squad. They’re not blocking traffic’.”

Clark then raised the NSW Government’s refusal to lift COVID-19 gathering limits for protests despite the same limits being lifted for venues like pubs and stadiums. Subsequently, in a protest against the Morrison Government’s Job-Ready Graduates Package, dozens of student activists were fined and subjected to police violence.  

“We just have to keep fighting. I think this is the lesson and defying these laws. Our protests have been the only way that we’ve been able to win these civil liberties in the first place.”

Kuehlmann concurs, saying that, despite significant political obstacles, students can and should push for change.

“There has been a lot of public sympathy and outrage about Violet Coco’s arrest last year. We can’t wish this out of thin air. I think what we can do now coming out of this is lay the groundwork for actually trying to rebuild the Left in Sydney.”  

Towards the end of the forum, Bacon urged students to keep agitating against the status quo and coming together to push for protest rights and freedom of speech on the ground.

“I think we have to keep exercising our right to protest but I also think we have to get through these laws because it’s really intimidating to potentially face when you have a busy life and everything for a protest,” She said. “ We have to agitate and keep it on people’s minds and make them realise how threatening it is.”

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