NSWCCL defends free speech and right of dissent on USyd campus

Speech delivered by NSWCCL President Stephen Blanks to Staff and Student Meeting - Defend USYD Civil Liberties at the University of Sydney on Wednesday 29 April 2015.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past and present.

It is pleasing to see concern about civil liberties as a central issue at the University of Sydney. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties has had strong links with the University since our foundation in 1963.

NSWCCL is joining this meeting today because we are concerned that the University reacting in a disturbingly disproportionate way to the incidents which occurred at the Colonel Richard Kemp lecture on 11 March 2015. 

A central theme of civil liberties is that liberties do not stop even when someone has done the wrong thing.

If this were not the case, there would have been, for example, no concern over the execution this morning of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. They plainly did the wrong thing, but that does not mean that the punishment that was carried out this morning was correct.

Respect for civil liberties requires a rules based approach, fair and proportionate treatment, and most importantly, respect for fundamental values such as free speech and the right to protest.

It is particularly important that civil liberties apply on a university campus. If they do not, the University may be perceived as being captive to vested interests, and the very values that the University stands for – academic freedom, freedom of speech and the right to protest will be compromised. This is not just an issue for the University, this is an issue for the whole community – which relies on Universities, where there is opportunity for robust free speech as part of the fabric of society.

The first requirement for civil liberties is that it must be clear what the rules are. Here, the rules are, at least in part, in codes of conduct – one for academics, and one for students. They are terribly vague:

Staff must:

treat students, staff, affiliates, visitors to the University and members of the public with respect, impartiality, courtesy and sensitivity

Students must:

treat all employees, honorary appointees, consultants, contractors, volunteers any other members of the public and other students with respect, dignity, impartiality, courtesy and sensitivity

It is unclear why students are required to treat people with dignity, but staff are not.

Although the Vice Chancellor says that it has a commitment to (protect) the right to protest, the codes of conduct do not anywhere recognise that right, or how it may conflict with the obligations in the code.

Exercise of the right to protest may legitimately involve acting disrespectfully, partially, discourteously, insensitively and without dignity.  

The Code does not provide for exemptions where staff and students are reacting to assaults or contempt by visitors to the University or members of the public.

The Code of Conduct lacks the necessary detail to work as a proper basis for serious disciplinary action.

The second requirement for civil liberties is that the codes of conduct must be consistently applied.

Compare the situation now to, for example, the staff strike in 2013, a strike which involved large scale protest activity over a period of 6 or 7 days, where were invasions of lectures by students seeking to disrupt the lectures and encourage others to join the strike.  Despite heavy handed action by police, resulting in numerous arrests (although no convictions, so far as I am aware) and orders banning people from campus for periods, only one student faced disciplinary proceedings. 

How disproportionate then, does it look here when out of a single incident, where no-one has been charged with any criminal offence, there are so many people threatened with disciplinary action?

The University in the past has exercised a great deal of restraint in commencing disciplinary proceedings, reserving them for the most egregious cases. The same restraint is not evident here.

The lack of restraint in bringing disciplinary proceedings undermines the reputation of the University, both amongst staff and students. A University intolerant of relatively minor transgressions will not attract robust free thinkers – just corporate yes-people.

The third requirement for civil liberties is that the consequences of breaches of the code must be fairly spelt out, and proportionate to the offence.  Here the codes give no information at all as to what may follow a breach.  Acting disrespectfully towards a visitor to the University surely should not attract the same penalty, for example, as engaging in racist conduct.  There is intense external pressure on the University to sack Jake Lynch and to expel the students. Such remedies would be utterly disproportionate and inappropriate. 

The University must stand up against that pressure.

But the most important requirement for civil liberties is that the codes, in their content, should uphold the vital commitments of the University to academic freedom and free speech. 

As things are working out now, it can be seen that University management’s use of the Codes will have a repressive effect on free speech on campus.  The university is being turned into a corporate enterprise in which dissent and protest is inconvenient for the corporate reputation of the University.  

The case against disciplinary proceedings arising out of the incidents at the Colonel Richard Kemp lecture on 11 March 2015 is founded in respect for civil liberties. If it does not prevail, the reputation of the University will be in danger.