This attack is wrong, it is cowardly, it is corrupt. It must not be tolerated.

civil libs mtg 2

A speech delivered to the April 29 campus meeting opposing the disciplinary action being taken by the University of Sydney against SSBDS member Jake Lynch and five students, all advocates of Palestinian human rights.

I acknowledge that we’re meeting on Aboriginal land.

I’d like to put our current agonies in context by asking what the value of dissent is in a university.

Some people have expressed disbelief that freedom of speech could be invoked to defend the students’ protest against Richard Kemp. They’ve denounced what they call our “perversion” of that concept.

Our critics, including the Vice Chancellor, have made it clear what forms of dissent they’re prepared to tolerate. Only speak when it’s your turn; don’t raise your voice; always be tolerant of others – unless, of course, you’re the Vice-Chancellor himself, when you get to threaten people with the sack if you find their views hard to bear.

Protest, interruption and dissent are what democracy looks like. That’s not an empty slogan: it’s the fact of the matter. We can’t allow academic decorum to paralyse us so rigidly that we’re prevented from turning our heads to face the lesson of history: it’s the young activist with her megaphone, not the intellectual in their seminar room, who leads the struggle for a better world.

Students routinely interrupt speakers on university campuses. In threatening them with disciplinary action, the leaders of this university obediently do their bit to legitimize and reinforce one of the most dangerous features of modern societies – the criminalization of dissent. This is the opposite of the civic purpose a university should fulfil.

Today we’re told what an intolerant, disrespectful, uncivil thing it was to interrupt Richard Kemp – Richard Kemp, who brags of the humanity of the army that littered Gaza with over 2000 Palestinian corpses less than a year ago.

I wonder what they’ll tell us tomorrow, or the day after. Perhaps that it’s disrespectful to hold a political meeting? They’ve already banned a meeting on Anzac day and militarism.

Or perhaps that it disturbs people to hand them a political leaflet on their way into university.

Or maybe they’ll tell us that we can’t be too critical of politicians at conferences, or in our tweets.

Is this irresponsible hyperbole? It’s a matter of public record that these kinds of censorship are already happening at our university. Our current Chancellor is from QBE Insurance. Who’s to say our next one won’t be from SBS?

Yesterday, the Vice-Chancellor posted an article on Yammer by the Human Rights commissioner, Tim Wilson, defending the sacking of Scott McIntyre for expressing his political views. The VC said the article was “interesting”.

So, who here is really on the side of free speech? Those of us defending protest and dissent, or those who demand the scalps of staff for their political views and who support dragging them and students through an inquisitorial legal investigation?

Free speech can’t be invoked to quarantine power from its critics and to doubly silence the voiceless. Disruption is what protest is for. Another name for it is “speaking truth to power”. Suppressing it in the name of civility is to substitute etiquette for the real battle of ideas.

And what about Jake in all this?

Education should be directed to the liberation of human capacities. Academics aren’t just obliged to conduct free enquiry and disseminate its results; we also have a duty to maximize the opportunity for others to do the same.

In advocating justice for Palestine, Jake’s intention has been to do exactly that.

Now, he is facing the sack for his principled expression of a conscientious and nonviolent educational politics. A more serious affront to the university’s purpose couldn’t be envisaged.

Teaching and research are already heavily shackled by inequalities of class, gender and race – as Palestinian academics and students know only too well. They must not also be subject to the politically-motivated interference of university administrations.

It’s not a coincidence that this attack is being made against a BDS exponent. It’s precisely the controversial views which the principles of intellectual and political freedom are needed to protect.

What’s being done to Jake is an attack on every student and academic here, whatever their views on Palestine and BDS. It’s wrong; it’s cowardly; it’s corrupt; it must not be tolerated.

Defending Jake and the protesters is incumbent on everyone who thinks dissent matters.

Universities should be places where people stand up to power, not where they are docile and compliant before it. Otherwise we’re consenting to the servile debasing of education for political gratification, and professing the creation and reproduction not of knowledge but of propaganda.

Nick Riemer

Crackdown on Palestine advocates at Sydney University a chilling development for political freedom and civil liberties on campus

15/4/2015, 23:40. For immediate release

Sydney Staff for BDS condemns the disciplinary proceedings the University of Sydney is taking against Palestine advocates on campus, as announced by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Michael Spence, today. The university’s move follows the protest on March 11 at a talk by Mr Richard Kemp.

“The University of Sydney claims to be committed to the struggle against racism and discrimination,” said Dr Nick Riemer from SSBDS. “But today Michael Spence has shown what side he is actually on. The Israel lobby only had to snap its fingers and the university jumped to take action against Palestine advocates. We call on supporters of peace and justice in the Middle East to write to Dr Spence demanding that no sanctions be made and a full statement of the University’s opposition to Israeli violations of international law and Palestinian human rights be issued.”

“It couldn’t be clearer that the university has been taking part in the Israel lobby’s witch hunt against Jake Lynch,” Riemer continued. “The complaints made against Lynch constitute the latest chapter in the ongoing campaign against him for his promotion of the Palestinian call to boycott Israel. It is scandalous that the University of Sydney has been collaborating with this campaign. The fact that it is doing so is consistent with Sydney’s extensive support for Israeli universities, which continue to play a key role in sustaining the occupation, and in Israel’s onslaughts on Gaza.”

The university’s decision to escalate its action against Palestine advocates comes despite an open letter with over 1500 signatories calling on Dr Spence “not to allow [him]self to be made the agent of the Israel lobby’s persecution of those committed to a just peace in the Middle East”. Signatories to the letter include Desmond Tutu, Julian Burnside AM QC, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Mary Kostakidis, Mike Carlton, Richard Falk, (former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories), federal and state politicians, and staff of universities on every continent.

“We will not be deterred by this attempt to silence Palestine activism at Sydney,” Dr Riemer said. “We will continue to speak the truth about Israel’s crimes and the University of Sydney’s complicity with them. It will not be too long before Sydney University’s cooperation with Israel and its lobby is seen as the serious stain on the university’s reputation that it is.”

“From the university’s announcement today, we can only conclude that it intends to bully Palestine supporters, including young students and human rights activists. Protest is inherently disruptive. Protesters at Kemp’s lecture were conscientiously exercising their civil liberties on a matter of major international importance. Richard Kemp has the world’s media at his disposal. To appeal to freedom of speech as grounds to punish Palestine advocates for interrupting Kemp is deeply hypocritical.”

“The University of Sydney must not declare itself off-limits for political action in favour of Palestine,” Riemer said. “Going after staff and students for their political views is a chilling outcome for Australia’s oldest university and the proud traditions of political dissent it embodies. Sydney must not side with a nuclear power to intimidate a small band of human rights activists. Doing so would make a mockery of the university’s claims to care about justice and anti-racism. How many of the Freedom Ride protesters, whom the university now celebrates, were involved in disruptive protest as a key mechanism to advance the cause of Indigenous rights?”

The university’s announcement of charges follows a highly compromised investigation, which saw the university lying to its staff about the identity of the investigator in charge. Staff voluntarily participating in the enquiry were told that this investigator was external and independent, when in fact she is listed in the university phone book as an employee. The National Tertiary Education Union has written to the university making the point that this gives every impression of an attempt to entrap staff, and can only raise serious questions about senior management’s good faith.

As revealed in a letter to New Matilda by the talk’s organisers, Richard Kemp appeared on campus with the blessing of the Vice-Chancellor’s office. In 2013, by contrast, the university tried to ban the Dalai Lama. Last year, it banned Uthman Badar from appearing on campus.

“To punish Palestine justice advocates in the name of freedom of speech is highly paradoxical. If it really cared about either freedom of speech or human rights, the university would not be cracking down on political protest on campus. This is a shocking development for political freedom and civil liberties at Sydney University, and beyond,” Riemer said.

Sydney Staff for BDS urges Dr Spence to protect his own reputation and that of the University of Sydney by strongly reaffirming the university’s independence from political interference, and by refusing to side with Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair and the other voices calling for Lynch to be dismissed and Palestine activists to be silenced.

More information: Nick Riemer, 0481 339 937; David Brophy, 0434 026 003

See SSBDS’ statement on the original enquiry, and our press dossier, here.