USYD should reverse suspensions placed on student protesters

Today NSWCCL President, Josh Pallas wrote to University of Sydney Vice Chancellor, Professor Mark Scott to urge Professor Scott to reconsider the reported suspension of two students, Maddie Clarke and Deaglan Godwin, who protested at a University of Sydney University Law Student’s Society event in September 2022.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) considers the reported half-year suspensions of these two students to be excessive and disproportionate. We asked USYD to immediately reverse these suspensions. 

Student protests against invited speakers on campus have a long history and occur in the spirit of academic freedom and the free flow of ideas in educational institutions.  Such speeches and student protests are often controversial but are essential to the interplay between university management and the student body within a community which is meant to foster free thought and thinking.

Prominent members of our society, including the current Prime Minister of Australia, participated as students in disruptive protests on campus.

This specific case concerned former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as the speaker, and the students reportedly did not attend to prevent the speech from occurring. But rather the University took drastic action to close down the face-to-face event before the protest ended.

The University failed to provide a means for Mr Turnbull’s address to proceed, in circumstances where it was completely foreseeable that there would be a protest, namely the address of a former Prime Minister to a group of students at a university campus.

The student protest was disruptive. It used their free speech on campus to call out the actions of another person, indeed a person with relative privilege as far as the ability to engage in public speech acts are concerned. Protest as an expression of free speech should be welcomed on university campuses as one of the hallmarks of flourishing intellectual communities.

Society is increasingly encroaching on the right of public assembly to engage in free speech. The University, which can boast a proud history of facilitating free speech and protest on campus should not succumb to prevalent messaging from state governments and within society that disruptive protest should be quashed.

The suspensions imposed are unreasonable and disproportionate to the specific actions taken by these students, which fall well within the bounds of legitimate protest in the context of university life. We call for their immediate reversal and a reconsideration of the penalty in light of the overall circumstances.