Qld students ready to defend free speech rights on campus

September 28, 2012

Police arrested and handcuffed two Brisbane-based activists, Rebecca Barrigos and Sid Zaoichi, after they set up a stall and petition against the state government’s budget cuts at a Brisbane university campus on September 21. Green Left Weekly’s Liam Flenady spoke to Barrigos about the arrests and the campaigns against austerity and for free speech in Queensland.

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What were you and fellow activist Sid Zaoichi campaigning for on campus and why was security called to evict you?

Sid and I were at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) [Kelvin Grove campus] to petition against the Liberal National Party’s (LNP) budget cuts, which have seen 14,000 jobs lost in the public sector.

We were leafleting for an anti-cuts rally called by the campaign group QLD Uncut and encouraging the attendance of QUT students at the rally, thousands of whom study education, public health and social work and have themselves been affected by [Premier Campbell] Newman’s attacks on the public and community services sectors.

At the instigation of the young LNP, which currently controls the QUT student guild on campus and backs Newman’s cuts, security was called. Five security guards surrounded Sid and told him that he must immediately stop leafleting for the rally and leave the campus. They refused to explain to us why Sid was being evicted but told us they would call the police if we did not comply with their orders.

How many officers came to campus and on what grounds did the police say they were arresting you?

The security guards called the police immediately. A police van arrived about five minutes later. Two cops approached Sid and asked him to go to the van with them. They said that although they didn’t know the QUT policies under which campus security had the authority to evict people from campus, unless Sid followed their directions to leave the campus he would be arrested.

When I questioned the police and security and demanded to know on what grounds Sid must leave we were told we were under arrest, handcuffed violently and led away to the police van. When a few left activists and students who were campaigning in the QUT elections came to our defence, another two police cars and four officers arrived on the scene.

We were taken to the Roma Street watchhouse where I was held for four hours.

Another left activist, Kat Henderson, was allegedly punched in the head by a member of the LNP student-run “Epic” ticket on campus last week, causing concussion and eye-tissue damage. What was the police response to that?

Police were called when Kat was assaulted by the LNP campaigner, but despite several students giving witness statements to QUT security and the police, the LNP campaigner was allowed to remain on campus.

He continued to threaten other left campaigners on campus and warn them that they “would be next”. The police indicated that the matter would have to be investigated before they will act.

This demonstrates the political nature of Sid and my arrests. If the security and police’s concern were to safeguard students on campus, this woman-basher would have been removed from campus immediately. The returning officer, who is meant to ensure the fairness and integrity of the election, would not have allowed him to keep campaigning. Instead we have a situation where Liberals punch an activist in the head and get away scot-free, but anti-LNP activists are arrested for inviting students to an anti-cuts rally.

Judging by developments on QUT and those on the University of Queensland (UQ) with the dodgy tactics of the LNP-run “Fresh” ticket, it is clear that LNP-run student unions are trying to further tighten their grip on power. How important is it that students fight back against this?

The Liberals’ goal on both campuses is to dismantle the student unions as the institutions that could defend student rights and organise students around political demands. If the LNP achieves this, students will be in an even more disadvantaged position when the government and university administrations implement their neoliberal agenda for education of course cuts and fee increases.

Already this year, LNP students have lobbied for the abolition of Abstudy payments to assist Aboriginal students at university, and at both UQ and QUT the administrations have cut staff numbers and subjects without a word of opposition from the student organisations.

So the fight for democracy and for left-wing student unions that will defend students’ rights is absolutely critical in the current climate.

Queensland has a rich history of radical student unionism, which the current LNP state government does not want to see reappearing.

Plans are underway to start a campaign for freedom of speech on campus. What is the thinking behind that and what is planned?

The question of defending free speech at QUT is a question for the whole left and all of the community campaigns in Queensland today.

Universities are public spaces, with a long history and tradition as sites for left organising and protest. If we intend to maintain this tradition, we will need to stand up to the QUT security and the LNP-controlled Guild, and defend democracy and free speech at QUT.

This is why we have organised to hold a mass stall day from 11am at the Kelvin Grove campus of QUT on October 2, the first day of classes after the mid-semester break. We invite all community groups, campaign organisations and individuals who value free speech and progressive activism to set up a campaign stall, to help petition against the security’s attacks on free speech or simply to come and support left activists on the day.

[Email Rebecca Barrigos at rbarrigos@gmail.com for more details about stall day.]

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