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Student activists are facing the threat of being charged hundreds of dollars to organise a rally on campus

After recent campus demonstrations at Sydney and La Trobe universities, rightwing hysteria and vitriol towards student activists flooded the Murdoch press.

The protests took on the bigoted agenda of Bettina Arndt, a champion of the international far Right, who has launched a speaking tour to denigrate feminism.

Arndt was interviewed copiously in the aftermath, about the trauma of facing angry students.

She told 2GB:

“This unruly mob of abusive students managed to totally block the entrance to my venue so that most of the audience couldn’t get through. They became increasingly aggressive, abusive to the students who were trying to get through.”

The rallies also triggered commentary from Prime Minister Morrison, who said:

"What I've always noticed from the Left is they're happy to have free speech as long as you agree with them. If you have a different view to them then apparently you're a bigot."

The response has since escalated, with recently appointed Education Minister Dan Tehan issuing calls to charge students security costs should they choose to organise demonstrations.

A Sydney Morning Herald article, titled ‘You protest, you pay: Education Minister's bid to bolster free speech at universities’, revealed that Tehan floated this idea in a meeting with the Group of Eight university vice-chancellors earlier in the month.

Tehan was backed up by the Sydney University Liberal Club President, who urged the Government to

"... identify key protesters and the key organisations that ran the protest and send them the security bill."

Such an act would be an extreme incursion on the right of students to politically organise. A majority of Australian students live below the poverty line. Student welfare has long been a pittance, and the rising costs of rent and public transport make affording food a struggle for many, with large numbers of International students reliant on soup kitchens. That the Government would propose burdening one of the poorest demographics in the country with huge fees simply for organising rallies is an absolute disgrace.

Beyond this, such charges are a major attack on civil liberties. The right to political organisation and expression should be a universal one. It is one that generations of student activists have fought for, dating back to the monumental Free Speech Movement at Berkeley University. In imposing onerous costs on demonstrators the Liberals would tilt the scales even further in favour of the wealthy when it comes to political expression.

Political authoritarianism is not foreign to Australian university campuses. Students have been disciplined for campaigning in support of Palestine. La Trobe academic Roz Ward was suspended for criticising the Australian flag on her personal Facebook account. Perhaps most egregiously, the University of Wollongong last year overturned the results of the student union election, sacking the student president, Chloe Rafferty, on the basis that she had made a political speech in a lecture.

Those concerned with the preservation of basic freedoms should be highly concerned about these developments. Yet some of the country’s most vocal free speech champions are urging the Education Minister on in persecuting protesters. In his Herald Sun column, Andrew Bolt has berated Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence for not taking a punitive enough stance towards the campus Left, while heartily endorsing the proposal to charge protesters for security.

This highlights the hypocrisy that surrounds the freedom of speech narrative in Australian society, especially as it relates to political activism at universities. Conservative free speech campaigners have long seen the rights they champion stripped from the Left without batting an eyelid. For the likes of Bolt, free speech is of far less concern than protecting far-right ideas from criticism and opposition.

These developments should be worrisome to the vast majority of us, however. The recent refusal of a visa for Chelsea Manning is an indication of the concerning level of authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent in Australia. This is happening as far right ideologues rise in prominence, with Tommy Robinson, Anne Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos and a suite of others scheduled to tour the country later this year.

In such a context, it is paramount that we uphold the right to politically organise.

Con Karavias is the National Education Officer at the National Union of Students.

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