Students and staff fight attack on right to protest

April 23, 2015
Mia Sanders is one of the students who took part in the protest action.

The University of Sydney has ramped up its bullying of students and staff who interrupted a lecture by a visiting Israeli colonel last month.

Several students who took part in the protest were sent “show cause” letters on April 15. Others had been summonsed to interviews about the protest.

Mia Sanders, one of the students who took part in the protest action, told Green Left Weekly: “Vice chancellor Michael Spence is, once again, showing contempt for the university’s own charter by trying to silence dissent”.

Colonel Richard Kemp, a supporter of Israel’s war on Gaza, delivered a lecture at the University of Sydney on March 11. Students organised a noisy and peaceful protest reception.

It turned ugly when security guards tried to drag students out. A Zionist audience member poured water over some protesters and tried to knee Associate Professor Jake Lynch as he argued with security about their heavy-handedness.

Lynch, from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is an outspoken supporter of Palestine and a member of the University of Sydney staff group for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. According to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Lynch has been cleared of allegations of anti-Semitism. However, he still faces a University of Sydney investigation into his “involvement” in the protest action and the campaign for his dismissal remains in full force.

Australasian Union of Jewish Students spokesperson Dean Sherr — who is campaigning for Lynch to be sacked — told the April 22 Australian: “We look forward to the end result [of this latest investigation]”. Sherr thanked Spence for “taking the campaign seriously”.

Five students, one staff member and five others, including students from other universities, received threatening letters via Facebook from Workdynamic Australia, an external law firm, telling them they had potentially breached the university’s Code of Conduct and could face disciplinary charges, including expulsion. They were told to reply to accusations about their conduct by April 24.

Sanders, a student councillor from University of Western Sydney Bankstown, said the letter was a “blatant attempt to scare students out of activism — and specifically in defence of Palestine”.

“Not only are the investigator’s accusations misrepresentative and biased, they're spurious and arbitrary,” Sanders said. The letter accuses her of telling an audience member to “fuck off”, that they were an “arsehole”, and yelling at security guards.

“I told security to stop, as they were dragging students out of the room by their feet,” Sanders said. “I called an audience member a ‘racist arsehole’ in response to that person calling me a ‘Nazi bitch’.

“Who cares if I swear or yell at a protest? The security and the speaker’s actions are more concerning than my use of M15+ language.

“Debate and dissenting opinions should be commonplace at universities. Isn’t that why Kemp was invited to speak?”

Sanders is concerned about the precedent the University of Sydney management is trying to set by going after protesters.

The university’s vision statement says it is a “place of inquiry”. But the VC’s bullying attempt to silence students and staff who stand up for what they believe in makes a mockery of this claim, Sanders said.

“Students and staff shouldn’t be frightened to speak out on campus or get politically active because their job, academic future or their right to be on campus will come under threat.”

“If the University of Sydney bans some activists from campus, where will it stop? Which activists will be next?”

Concerned staff and students, together with the University of Sydney SRC, have called a public meeting “Sydney University: don’t suppress dissent!” on April 29 at 1pm in the General Lecture Theatre. Speakers include Senator Lee Rhiannon, Professor Stuart Rees, Kyol Blakeney, Michael Thomson and Fahad Ali.

All those concerned with democratic rights should support this meeting and fight attempts to clamp down on free speech and political action.

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