On October 13, 2020, police used violent force against students and at least one faculty member during a protest on the University of Sydney campus.
Approximately two hundred students gathered on university grounds to protest the Australian government’s proposed cuts to higher education. The event reportedly began with a teach-in by faculty. Students then began chanting and proceeded to march around campus. The police came on to campus and watched the students; however, as some students attempted to march outside the campus, police reportedly surrounded and used force against the students in an attempt to disperse them. One video of the incident showed a police officer violently throwing a student to the curb. Reports and video evidence also showed police aggressively detaining law professor Simon Rice, who teaches a course on protest law and was observing the protest. Rice was later fined $1,000 for “acting in common purpose” with the protesters and released from custody. Police arrested and briefly held an unspecified number of students, issued more fines, and confiscated banners and other protest materials.
The arrest of Professor Rice and the crackdown on the student protest is not an isolated event at the University of Sydney. On July 31, 2020, over 30 police responded to a small rally hosted by the University of Sydney Education Action Group. Despite complying with social distancing rules and heeding the officers’ “move-on” order, two protesters were detained and issued fines. On August 28, 2020, over 70 police responded to an on-campus student rally organized to protest university funding cuts by the Morrison government. Police arrived before the protest began and, despite remaining peaceful, several protesters and speakers were apprehended and fined.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about police use of force, arrests, and fines in response to the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly on campus — conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a party. While state authorities have a responsibility to maintain security and order, they also have an obligation to ensure that their actions are proportionate, do not harm members of the higher education community, and are not undertaken to restrict or retaliate against peaceful, expressive activity. Such incidents undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.