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Protestors face off near Melbourne University. Picture: NCA Newswire/Jason Edwards

Universities struggling to find balance between free speech and safe campuses

University chancellors are attempting to find the right balance between freedom of speech and ensuring safety on university campuses, as tensions continue to rise between Jewish students and pro-Palestinian protesters chanting “from the river to the sea” at Melbourne’s biggest campus.

The University Chancellors Council (UCC) assembled for a pivotal meeting in Brisbane and discussed growing fears among Jewish ­students and staff of creeping anti-Semitism, but its 150-word state­ment did not directly condemn anti-Semitism, angering the Coalition.

The council, made up of heads of governing bodies of 39 univer­sities, affirmed in a statement that “hate speech or conduct directed at any person or group of persons because of their nationality, ­religion or identity is completely unacceptable”.

Pro-Palestinian protestors near Melbourne University. Picture: NCA Newswire

The Australian Academic ­Alliance Against Anti-Semitism, which wrote to the UCC in late April, alarmed that anti-Israel protests on campuses were “rapidly spiralling out of control”, said the chancellors’ statement was “very disappointing”.

As the higher education bosses met in Queensland, groups of Jewish protesters and anti-Israel campers hundreds of kilometres away clashed at the University of Melbourne.

Separated by a pond and later police, the campers chanted “from the river to the sea” – a slogan signifying the clearing of the state of Israel from the Middle East – while Jewish students demanded the pro-Palestinian supporters remove their masks.

University of Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott said on Thursday the slogan “from the river to the sea” did not breach the ­institution’s code of conduct and its use was the “discomfort” of maintaining free speech.

Professor Scott told The Daily Telegraph the use of the phrase, as well as calls for an intifada against Israel, did not meet the threshold for disciplinary action under the university code but explicit calls for violence and endorsements of terrorism were banned.

In Brisbane, University of Queensland vice-chancellor ­Deborah Terry indicated no further action would be taken after pro-­Palestinian activists hung the flag of a known terrorist ­organisation at their on-campus encampment but then responded to a request from the university to remove it.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine flag, centre, at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Picture: NCA Newswire

Professor Scott has said the protesters on his campus were “a million miles away” from anti-­Israel activists pitching tents at American universities.

One of the signatories of the academic group’s letter, University of Wollongong law professor Greg Rose, said the chancellors’ statement didn’t address the need to find a balance between academic freedom and freedom of expression with maintaining a safe, respectful and inclusive environment.

Professor Rose said universities generally took the “path of least resistance” and failed to ­address anti-Semitism “to avoid campus friction”.

“I would have liked them (university chancellors) to recognise there’s a problem and to establish a national taskforce to find a balance between sanctions against racism and anti-Semitism and safeguarding academic freedom and freedom of speech,” he said.

The chancellors’ statement, ­issued by UCC convener Deakin University chancellor John ­Stanhope, said the highest priority for all universities was “to maintain a safe, respectful and inclusive environment, both physically and online, for all staff and students”.

“As the peak body responsible for oversight and governance, we are confident the management of our university sector has policies, procedures and sanctions in place to allow for academic freedom and freedom of expression across our campuses,” he said.

Chancellors act as the chairs of university boards and senates and include some of the most illustrious names in politics, business and the public service, including former foreign minister Julie Bishop at the Australian National University, former DFAT secretary Peter Varghese at the University of Queensland, business stalwart David Gonski at UNSW, and former Defence Force chief Angus Houston at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

Opposition education spokeswoman Sarah Henderson said the chancellors’ response to the letter was “extremely disappointing and represents a failure of ­leadership”.

“While universities have wide-ranging policies which protect students and staff from threats, intimidation, racial vilification and harassment, these policies are not being appropriately enforced. This failure is helping to fuel unprecedented division and anti-Semitism,” she said.

Asked whether university policies were adequate to address hate speech on campus, Education Minister Jason Clare said universities should enforce their existing codes of conduct.

“I have made it clear to university vice-­chancellors that there is no place for anti-Semitism or Islamo­phobia on our university campuses or anywhere else,” he said.

After the flag incident on the University of Queensland campus, Professor Terry said the students were instructed to remove the flag of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) from their tent on Wednesday and had acted accordingly.

When pressed on whether further action would be taken to reprimand the students, she said: “We conveyed the flag was inappropriate yesterday afternoon, and the flag was taken down. The flag has been removed, and that was the action we were seeking.”

Organisers of Students for Palestine UQ failed to condemn the action of fellow students.

The PFLP is a designated terrorist organisation in the US, the EU and Canada. In Australia, the group is listed on its consolidated list of organisations subject to fin­ancial sanctions.

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