The University of Tasmania (UTas) has repeatedly claimed to hold a position of neutrality in the Marriage Equality debate by way of advocating for ‘freedom of expression.’ But its actions in the past two months have undermined its claims to neutrality in this debate. It has undermined the value of freedom of expression for all, it has implicitly endorsed the ‘no’ campaign, and it has ignored the marginalised position of people and students in the LGBTIQ community.
In late August the UTas Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture and Wellbeing, Professor Margaret Otlowski, sent an email to students about the impending Marriage Equality Postal Survey. The message emphasised the importance of supporting ‘an environment where different voices can be heard, reflecting principles of freedom of expression.’ It contained no mention of students’ rights to feel free from discrimination, prejudice or violence, but it referred those distressed by ‘the debate’ to support services.
A month later, a Neo-Nazi group calling itself ‘Antipodean Resistance’ plastered the UTas campus with stickers featuring swastikas and homophobic slurs. When prompted by the media, a UTas spokesperson condemned the attack and stated: ‘Our values commit us to a society which is just, diverse and inclusive’. No similar message was circulated internally to UTas staff and students about this, and the Vice-Chancellor’s office provided no indication of what university leadership might do to prevent this rising current of violence.
Then, on 1 October, the Coalition for Marriage (CfM), a leading voice for the ‘no’ campaign, announced its intention to host a Hobart rally (‘an evening not to be missed’). The rally was to focus on ‘the radical LGBTIQ sex and gender programs already in Australian schools’. An official statement made assertions about ‘human rights and anti-discrimination commissions’ as tools being used to silence political dissidence, and it closed with the claim that ‘the affects [sic] to freedom of speech and religious freedom, if the law is changed, will be significant’. For its guest speakers, the rally promised both Cory Bernardi and a social media celebrity, billed as ‘PoliticalPostingMumma’, who operates a Facebook page in which she routinely denounces the Department of Education and ‘leftie/greenie/Marxists/parentless or LGBTQ activists’. Her most common target is the research-supported Safe Schools program, which she insists is an insidious creation of Marxists and ‘transgender academic activists’.
A few days later, on 4 October, the original venue for the rally, Wrest Point Casino, cancelled the booking citing pressure on staff and resources. The next day, the rally found a willing replacement venue: the University of Tasmania.
According to media reports, the university initially refused an application from the CfM. An article published in The Australian quoted CfM spokesperson Monica Doumit as saying that the initial CfM application was rejected by the university, because it ‘didn’t conform to teaching and research purposes, which is what they use the venue for’. In an unexpected turn of events, however, Doumit revealed that ‘The vice-chancellor reached out and asked us to re-apply and we were happy to do so.’ The Vice-Chancellor, Peter Rathjen, later described this offer as a ‘fee-for-venue hire agreement.’ This was an unexpected turn of events, because UTas policy clearly states that ‘venue bookings for event purposes must be made not less than six weeks prior to the date upon which hire is required to commence in order to provide sufficient time for completion of associated documentation’, whereas this ‘fee-for-venue hire agreement’ was entered into at much shorter notice. Staff and students (still unsettled by the university’s lack of leadership, or overt support for students, in the wake of the recent Neo-Nazi abuse) were left to learn about the rally via media reports, on the evening of 5 October – the day before the rally.
In light of the controversy stirring on campus, the staff and students of UTas received an email from the VC on Friday afternoon, two-and-a-half hours before the CfM rally. In addition to describing the arrangement as a ‘fee-for-venue hire’, Rathjen insisted ‘the University [was] not signalling a position on marriage equality’.
We couldn’t accept this claim. For those not familiar with UTas, the Stanley Burbury Lecture Theatre is not simply one more venue for hire – it is symbolic as a teaching and learning space, and it is the Sandy Bay Campus venue in which official ceremonies, including graduations, are held. It is, unmistakably, a ceremonial space as well as an academic theatre.
Universities are, ideally, places where expertise is valued, nuance is fostered, and intellectual rigour is demanded. These values are grounded and symbolised in spaces like the Stanley Burbury Theatre. When the university opens up this space to a group like the CfM, it lends (or rather, rents out) its symbolic value, suggesting that the views and methodologies of the CfM are somehow able to contribute to the research and learning goals of the university and the good of the wider community. This is an endorsement.
The final paragraph of the email that staff and students of UTas received from the VC noted that ‘this debate may be distressing for our staff and students’, and went on, as in their initial email addressing the Marriage Postal Survey, to encourage those of us who might be distressed to access university support and counselling services.
While these are valuable services, offering them as the university’s sole response to the ‘distress’ of staff and students medicalises and individualises our hurt and anger. We think the Same Sex Marriage Survey is unfair and unnecessary. This hurt and anger is reasonable, and political, and something the university has the power to help alleviate. In regards to this issue, the university chose not to use its power.
Plans for a student protest in response to the CfM rally were in the works the evening before the proposed event. This protest was not affiliated with the ‘yes’ campaign. It was directed at a university perceived to have betrayed its staff and students, and to have undermined its own integrity.
UTas students Jess Bestwick and Rhiannon Gray were two of the organisers. ‘LGBTQIA students were posting on social media, saying they felt unsafe on campus,’ Jess says. ‘It was the university’s choice to allow this rally to be held on campus that spurred us to create the Facebook event.’
They planned for a peaceful protest and expected a handful of their friends to attend. By the next morning, upwards of 150 people had indicated that they were interested in the event on Facebook, and seventy indicated that they were planning to attend. In the details for the protest, Jess and Rhiannon stressed its peaceful nature: ‘The “Coalition for (cishet) marriage” is holding a hate rally at the Stanley Burbury theatre at UTAS. Let’s show them what love looks like with a *peaceful* protest! Our aim is to outnumber the pro-inequality people, and to demonstrate that they don’t need to be afraid of LGBTQIA people.’
At 12:25 pm on 6 October, a member of the university Service Centre contacted Jess and Rhiannon to inform them that they needed to submit a ‘stall application’ to enable them to gather on campus. In order to do this, they needed to affiliate the event with a Tasmania University Union (TUU) society, so as to be covered by public liability. They promptly did this, partnering up with the university’s Women’s Collective.
At 1:05 pm, they received another email, from the same representative, informing them that ‘as it has been submitted so late … [their application] is outside [the] guidelines for getting approved.’ They were provided with the option to submit an application for a temporary stall, however as they would be doing so as individuals uncovered by public liability, they would be personally responsible for all who attended the event.
The protest was cancelled.
‘None of us were comfortable being liable for all of these people, in case something went wrong,’ Jess said.
It is worth noting that the university’s advice about the events was couched in courteous and professional language. But the cancellation of the protest shed light on the drastic power imbalance underpinning this series of events. The student organisers — young, queer women — had no institutional support. In order to acquire it, they would have to apply, and then wait for it to be bestowed. The CfM had the backing of conservative political and religious institutions. They did not have to wait for the university to bestow them support; they were in a position to use their institutional clout and access to financial reserves to hire the theatre at the last minute. Moreover, the university was willing to breach its own policies so that this rally could take place; the student organisers received no such lenient treatment. The university claims to support and foster freedom of expression, however what it has not acknowledged is that institutions create the conditions for this very ‘freedom’ to emerge. Freedom of speech is a privilege.
A group of us who were saddened by the cancellation of the protest decided to make known our dismay at an institution that we had thought was better than this. We met on campus, made some signs and wrote some poetry and a media statement. Our protest began out the front of the university café in the hope that we might collect anyone left over from the original, cancelled protest. We were joined by Greens Senator Nick McKim along with his son and some other Greens members. They were encouraging and they followed our lead and bolstered our confidence. Members of the media quickly arrived. We walked to near the entrance of the Stanley Burbury Lecture Theatre, where we read this statement:
The LGBTIQ+ staff and students of UTas deserve to feel safe and respected in our place of work and learning. The methods and values of the Coalition for Marriage are against the university’s stated values of equality and respect for diversity. They are dishonest and damaging. They are lacking academic and intellectual integrity and have nothing to add to the research and learning goals of the university. We are angry about the symbolism of allowing views that have been disproven by university research access to university spaces. We reject the university’s claim to neutrality and expect leadership on the issue. The integrity and safety of our academic spaces should not be for hire.
As our humble demonstration ended, one of the unaffiliated protesters waved their hand towards the lecture theatre, with the words ‘Stanley Burbury’ emblazoned above its doors, and said to us:
‘You do realise they’re in there now, talking about us? That’s what they’re here for: to talk shit about us and our families.’