Free speech under attack at Sydney University

10 July 2024
Deaglan Godwin
The Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Sydney University PHOTO: Supplied

The University of Sydney has introduced measures to clamp down on political expression and protest on campus. It is an escalation by management, and targets students campaigning against Israel’s genocide and fighting for a more just university.

On 27 June, university management quietly released its new “campus access policy”. The document states that organisers of any campus protest must give at least 72 hours’ advance notice to the university. The university assures us that “prior approval is not required”. However, there are conditions attached.

The policy contains a list of activities requiring prior approval, which is basically an ABC of activist essentials. It includes using “megaphones or amplifiers”—ubiquitous at any protest. It also includes “attaching materials, banners or structures to university buildings or fixtures” and “erecting temporary structures” such as booths, card tables, temporary enclosures, mobile structures and electronic signs. Under the policy, activists would need approval from the university to put up posters, hand out leaflets and distribute political literature.

Then there is a list of “unacceptable activities”. Camping is high on it—undoubtedly a retaliation for the Gaza Solidarity Encampment that occupied the Quadrangle Lawns last semester. The list also includes “using a megaphone or other amplifier in close proximity to a person”. The document warns that anyone found to be engaging in these activities will be in breach of policy. The punishment? University security kick a student off campus. If you don’t comply? The document empowers security to detain people until the police arrive.

Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott is tightening the screws on student activists, who have humiliated the university over the past couple of months. The Gaza Solidarity Encampment shone a light on the university’s complicity with Israel’s genocide. Through rallies, teach-ins, class announcements and social media, activists highlighted to thousands of students the ties between Sydney University, weapons companies and the Israeli military.

Sydney University’s new measures align with similar moves at other universities. Students at the Australian National University, Melbourne University, Deakin University, La Trobe University and Adelaide University have faced disciplinary action in recent months for speaking out against the war on Palestine.

Beneath empty statements about “respecting freedom of speech” and operating as a “marketplace of ideas”, universities across the country have proven to be hostile to activism against powerful political and commercial interests. While Sydney University honours the Aboriginal Freedom Rides of last century with a plaque at the very place the Gaza Solidarity Encampment pitched its tents, the activists of today are honoured with suspensions.

We refuse to accept these attacks on our democratic and civil rights. If they become the norm, they will rob Sydney University of the vibrant political culture for which it is known. Management’s measures extend not only to political causes, but to other activities. Must the Dog Society and the Drama Society beg Mark Scott for permission to advertise and promote their latest play or dog therapy session? In targeting pro-Palestine activists, university administrators have curtailed the rights and freedoms of all students and staff.

Students will fight these attacks on freedom of speech and our right to protest. Activists have written an open letter for students, staff, unions and other organisations to sign. Students for Palestine is planning a student general meeting in the second week of semester, which will consider a motion that university cut ties with Israel and repeal this draconian policy. We are determined to fight to defend our freedom of speech and right to protest.

Deaglan Godwin is vice president of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council.

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