Queensland University of Technology (QUT) academic Dr Gary MacLennan told a public meeting on July 18 that "ordinary people think laughing at the disabled is wrong ... only in a university is it seen as otherwise".
MacLennan and his colleague Dr John Hookham are determined to defeat the university's charges against them for speaking out against a film made by a PhD student titled Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. Both were suspended in June by QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coldrake for six months without pay.
MacLennan, who was the guest speaker at a Socialist Alliance meeting on July 18, said he had attended the PhD confirmation seminar and candidate presentation and "could not believe" what he saw. He and Hookham are critical of the film's portrayal of two intellectually disabled men and voiced their views at the end of the screening. They were also concerned about the consequences and reputation of the university, and felt that their concerns needed to be aired publicly. This bought them into conflict with the university administration.
MacLennan told the meeting that the film breaches ethics and research standards relating to the treatment of human beings. He described the substance of the film as being like the "village idiot syndrome with digital technology" and said he is disturbed by the university's support for a "market for people laughing at the disabled". He added that the fact the film received an ethics clearance reflects the adverse impact of neoliberal policies on universities.
MacLennan, who has been banned from entering QUT grounds, and from his office and email, was also reprimanded and charged by QUT management with being "unprofessional" for posting an email to a QUT students' email list explaining why he was suspended.
Coldrake's attempt to silence MacLennan and Hookham has not gone to plan. MacLennan and Hookham are receiving support from the disabled community, students, academics and civil liberties campaigners. On July 12, at a Federal Court hearing, the QUT backed down and agreed to pay the two academics until the next hearing in October.
At the meeting, a young autistic man told MacLennan, "By standing up against QUT you have helped give a voice to millions of disabled people ... against an inhuman act that is like something from mediaeval times".
MacLennan is optimistic about his and Hookham's fight to get reinstated at QUT. A solidarity protest is planned for July 29 at the Gardens Point campus from 10am. Phone Paul on 0410 629 088 for more information.