By Emily Contador-Kelsall
Students and staff at the University of Sydney (USYD) have joined high profile figures including Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon in condemning the university for attacking their civil liberties and right to protest.
A packed public meeting was held last Wednesday April 29 at the university to defend civil liberties and oppose the disciplinary action Professor Jake Lynch and several students face following the interruption of a lecture last month by Free Palestine protestors.
“You don’t have to necessarily share Jake and the students’ views on the Middle East to agree that clamping down on dissent and protest is antidemocratic. It is an attack on civil liberties that reduces everyone’s rights. It harms us all,” read the event’s Facebook page.
Speakers at the event included Greens MP Lee Rhiannon, Stephen Blanks the President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation Professor Stuart Rees AM, university academics, students and several others.
Nick Riemer, senior lecturer in English and linguistics at USYD spoke at the meeting and said that defending Professor Lynch and the protesters was “incumbent on everyone who thinks dissent matters”.
“Students routinely interrupt speakers on university campuses. In threatening them with disciplinary action, the leaders of this university obediently do their bit to legitimise and reinforce one of the most dangerous features of modern societies – the criminalisation of dissent,” he said.
In a statement, Vice–Chancellor Dr Michael Spence responded to the claims that the university’s actions were politically motivated. He said these claims were “simply risible” and the university was “not interested in the political views of staff or students”.
Retired British Colonel Richard Kemp gave the lecture on March 11 and spoke about the ethical dilemmas of military tactics. He is a vocal supporter of Israel and was the target of the protests that disrupted the lecture.
Following confusion and clashes between protesters and those attending the lecture, including Professor Lynch, accusations of anti-Semitism against Professor Lynch surfaced. He has since been cleared of anti-Semitic actions but still faces ramifications, potentially the loss of his job at USYD.
Public Affairs Director at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Alex Ryvchin, said it was ridiculous for the people that interrupted the lecture, “who censored and shut down free speech with a megaphone to now claim that their right to free speech is being impeded”.
“There’s a right to protest but there’s no right to storm a lecture theatre with the sole purpose of shutting down an event simply because the speaker’s views don’t accord with one’s own,” he said.
Mr Ryvchin was at Cnl Kemp’s lecture and said he was in no doubt the protesters intended to shut down the lecture completely. Protesters interrupted the lecture and stopped Cnl Kemp’s talk for around 20 minutes according to Mr Ryvchin before security staff removed them.
““They physically took control over the lectern and microphone and made it impossible for Richard Kemp, or the moderator, to say anything at all,” he said.
“This was about power. Showing that they’re in control, showing that if you hold pro-Israel views on campus you have no right to speak. And that’s really what’s at stake here.”
President of the USYD Students for Justice in Palestine Fahad Ali spoke last Wednesday and did not feel that Cnl Kemp’s right to free speech was obstructed but that those “who advocate for Palestine on campus are being punished”.
“It basically is a message to Palestinian students that people can come onto campus invited and supported by the university to endorse the genocide of our people and if you try to protest or speak against that in any way, you will be punished and you will face misconduct proceedings,” he said.