Freya Newman, the University of Technology (UTS) student who uncovered the controversial tertiary scholarship given to Frances Abbott, has received support from fellow students across Sydney.
It is alleged Ms Newman, while volunteering at the Whitehouse Institute of Design, used a co-worker’s staff login to access student files and subsequently uncovered an unusual scholarship awarded to Ms Abbott.
Ms Newman then leaked this information to New Matilda in May.
Ms Newman has been charged by the NSW Police with one count of accessing restricted information held on a computer. The charge falls under section 308H of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 and carries and maximum sentence of two years in prison.
The charge comes from an obscure part of the Crimes Act and has carries very little criminal precedent, according to legal experts.
“There seem to be fairly few similar cases,” a spokesperson for the Law Society of NSW told City Hub.
Supporters of Ms Newman have commended her for acting in the public interest.
Thomas Spohr, President of the Young Lawyers division of the NSW Law Society said the issue of public interest may not apply in this case.
“Releasing private information is very different from releasing public information, it’s not generally the case that it is okay to release private information because you think it is in the public interest,” he said.
The fact that the information was held on a private database begs the question of how it could have been a legitimate merit-based scholarship if its existence was not public information. Legal experts told City Hub this is an issue that may be brought up in court.
NSW is one of the only states that does not offer protection for members of the private sector who leak information to the public.
“There is no statutory system of protection available in NSW for public-spirited persons or citizens who want to blow the whistle on (say) government contractor misconduct, fraud, waste, or a potential threat to public health or safety or the environment,” said a spokesperson for the Law Society of NSW.
NSW Police were unable to comment on the circumstances surrounding the arrest as the matter is now before the court.
A court order was delivered to Ms Newman at her home on Monday, August 4.
A groundswell of support from local students has emerged, claiming Ms Newman needs to be defended in the name of both freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
The local response began when the UTS Union offered Ms Newman full legal representation free of charge.
This week, the University of Sydney Student Representative Council (SRC) passed a Motion of Solidarity to support Ms Newman. The motion was put to the SRC by Socialist Alternative member Ridah Hassan and supported by General-Secretary James Leeder.
Mr Leeder also proposed that the motion be accompanied by an offer of full financial support from the SRC legal team, despite the fact that Ms Newman has never attended the University of Sydney.
These motions by both major inner city universities follow the appearance of a large-scale petition on popular website change.org.
The petition, with almost 5000 signatures so far, seeks to “stop the pursuit of Freya Newman for leaking documents about Frances Abbot’s scholarship and enshrine the freedom of the press in the Australian constitution”.
Petition signatory Astrid O’Neil said: “This is corruption, pure and simple, and shames the Abbott Government”.
Another petition signatory, Milton Manner, said: “We need people to expose corruption without fear of retribution.”
Financial aid for legal representation has also been offered by Facebook group Free Freya Newman, which currently has over 3,500 members.
The group’s mission statement reads: “The leaked information is in the public’s interest and ‘we’ (the majority) believe it is unjust for Freya Newman to face criminal charges.”
A subsequent petition implored the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to “investigate if the Whitehouse Institute acted corruptly in awarding a $60,000 scholarship to Frances Abbott”.
City of Sydney Councillor Irene Doutney said she feels the criminal charges are hypocritical given the federal government’s recent cuts to public education.
“It should not be a police matter for someone to say something in the public interest, especially when this federal government is making it so hard for people who need financial assistance for tertiary education to get it,” she said.
Ms Newman’s case will be heard at the Downing Centre local court on September 18.