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Gross contempt of authority: The spirit of campus radicalism in the ‘60s

Twenty cents was enough money in the ‘60s for students to brandish pitchforks.

It was April of 1967. There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air. 

The peace that had reigned so long over Fisher Library was broken by the sound of books slammed in indignation and the crackle of loud-hailers. In a smoke-filled boardroom, late fines for borrowing had been increased to forty cents for the first day late, and twenty cents for every day after that. 

Twenty cents was enough money in the ‘60s for students to brandish pitchforks. 

Waves of youthful rebellion began to follow. The fact that something as seemingly unremarkable as library late fees fomented protest illustrates how campus life in the 1960s was a time of deep set generational divide that transcended traditional political demands. 

Max Humphries was a graduate student and a regular amongst the Fisher’s sea of books. 

Presented with a late fee, he recoiled. The university is putting a price on his education. Humphries began to stand at the doors of the library with pamphlets, decrying their pecuniary predilections. He was soon apprehended, and ordered to appear before the “Proctorial Board”. This academic Star Chamber began to investigate Humphries on charges of showing “gross contempt to authorities and inciting others to do the same.” If found guilty, he would be suspended for the rest of the year. 

By the 5th of April, groups of students had been occupying Fisher in regular sit-ins, protesting both the raise in fees and Humphries’ possible suspension. Humphries was the author and subject of Honi Soit’s front page story on 6 April, declaring that students (and him in particular) were being “executed without trial”. Whether an exhortation wishing readers “happy hunting” was directed towards the students or the campus security who were by this point regularly dragging student demonstrators physically from the Fisher. To many, the response of administrators to the late-fee protests was proof of a conservative older generation encroaching on the summer of love. The notion of university had become joined at the hip with that of protest and a questioning of established authority. 

In the meantime, the students were revolting. “The largest student demonstration Sydney University has ever witnessed” spilled out of the Quad and onto Eastern Avenue. They demanded an end to the Humphries case and a liberalisation of the late charges. By all accounts, the only response was the image of the “white-haired head of the Vice-Chancellor” sticking out of a Quadrangle window, looking disapprovingly as youth expressed themselves below. 

The Max Humphries incident was a sounding board for how student protests were going to be responded to. He was allowed to return to class as long as he was of “good behaviour.” The social change didn’t end there. 

On 1 May 1969, a tomato sailed above the Quadrangle lawns. Governor Sir Roden Cutler was inspecting the University Regiment. Hundreds of anti-war protestors took the opportunity to oppose conscription to Vietnam, in light of the visit of a senior military officer. The Vice-Regal shoulder was tainted with a crimson daub of squashed tomato. Sir Roden commented that “overseas they know how to riot more vigorously.” Vietnam was no longer an issue purely for debate. It was the major issue for student protests in 1969 and 1970. May of 1970 saw many students partake in the anti-conscription moratoriums, where over 200,000 people condemned the escalation of the conflict. Students at Usyd created a “Committee of Conscience,” which aimed to “advise students about legal matters” relating to conscientious objection to the call-up. Australian troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by 1972, and conscription ended.  As one anonymous student said, it must’ve been a “worthwhile tomato.”

As the 1960s became the 1970s, the upheaval continued in earnest, but mostly died down with the ending of conscription. As I write this from my desk in the Fisher, long after the death of late fines, there’s a small group of protesters gathering outside, proffering leaflets. I don’t know their cause, but the fact that there are students still willing to express a healthy, if not “gross” contempt of authority, is comforting, because it means the efforts of those like Max Humphries were not in vain. Student protests of the 60s have always been presented as a slightly comic attempt at rabble-rousing, but they really are a lens to reconsider just how seismic the changes in Australian society were at the time, and how what is past is prologue — the events of that time still bear fruit today.