Free speech not so free at NDU

In August members of the Socialist Alliance group at Notre Dame University raised with me the refusal of the university to let them register their club. They pointed out that Liberal and Labor clubs had been allowed to register but when they raised this with the administration they were told NDU was reviewing its rules for club registration and that these clubs may be disallowed as well.

Soon after the campus administration even tried to pressure these students and staff not to hold a meeting to discuss the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in the Student Association lunch room. A manger turned up to ask them not to hold the meeting and one of the students was later summonsed to a meeting with the Pro Vice Chancellor. So much for universities being a place of free intellectual exchange.

Meanwhile last year the world's richest woman Gina Rinehart was not just able to book a lecture room, but hosted a public meeting with climate change denier “Lord” Moncton which was officially sponsored by the university. So Rinehart can effectively purchase the university's logo for her event; but students and staff can't even hold a discussion, let alone book a room, in their own lunchtime?

My letter below received a polite but dismissive reply that simply confirmed the university was “reviewing” its club rules. To my knowledge this has still not happened. Regardless of that free speech is an inherent right, not something for bureaucrats to give or take away. Free speech: if don't use it, you lose it!

Professor Mark Tannock
Pro Vice Chancellor (Fremantle Campus)
University of Notre Dame

Dear Professor Tannock,
I write to you wearing two hats, both that of a City of Fremantle councillor and as the Convenor of the Walyalup-Fremantle branch of the Socialist Alliance. The issue I write to you about is the apparent reluctance of the university to allow Socialist Alliance members who are students and staff at the university to form a registered club, and its seeming determination to prevent independent student discussion and organisation in general.

While I had heard some reports from my colleagues about their difficulty in getting their club registered, it was something I really wanted to keep out of. However two recent events, which I will shortly explain, convinced me to write to you.

I was also very concerned to hear that in response to the objections from my colleagues that while they were being denied, both Labor and Liberal clubs had been allowed to register; that the university was reviewing its club rules in general and that the eligibility of these clubs to register was being called into question as well.

Perhaps of greatest concern was the suggestion that the university would be reviewing its student club rules with an eye to the sensibilities of its "external stakeholders", which I fear means corporate sponsors. I sincerely hope this is not true, as it it would be a terrible blow to the credibility of the university in general; let alone the right of students to organise clubs, discussions and events free from paternalistic intervention by the administration.

Yesterday on the invitation of my colleagues I attended an informal lunch time discussion on the question of refugees and asylum seekers that they had organised. I gather that because they are unable to register a club they can not book university rooms for meetings so had arranged for the discussion to take place in the Student Association room, with its permission. So it was truly staggering to witness a member of the university administration interrupt the meeting to ask that it not happen on university grounds.

If I hadn't been there I wouldn't have believed it. A dozen students and staff of NDU, grown adults; being asked by the university not to gather to discuss an issue of mutual concern in their own free time in the Student Association space. Was I at a university or primary school? While I kept out of the debate, it was a truly humiliating and sorry spectacle; most especially for the university.

I was also very disappointed to learn that students had been asked by university administration staff not to hand out flyers promoting causes, meetings, events and the like. It would be bad enough that this approach had been taken on university grounds, but one student told me he had even been asked not to hand out material while on the public footpath. It's worrying as it is that NDU would seek to prohibit activities that would not even raise an eyebrow at every other university in the country, but that it would even pretend to be able to regulate activity on the public footpath is simply unacceptable.

I want to stress that the university brings some great things to Fremantle; people, life, trade to surrounding small businesses, the beautiful restoration of heritage buildings and a lot more. My partner Janet works in the field of disability services and has really appreciated the community involvement and volunteering from NDU students that your staff have facilitated. But I would like to see the benefits of a university to our community in the complete sense, and that includes the uninhibited development of a vibrant and diverse student culture.

I'm looking forward to a speedy and common sense resolution to this issue.

Regards,
Sam Wainwright
16 August 2012

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