Two university students involved in a protest against former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull say they’ve been suspended for a semester after a months-long investigation which they claimed they were gagged from talking about to media or friends.
Maddie Clarke and Deaglan Godwin, students at the University of Sydney, claimed the institution was attempting to “crack down on activism” by suspending them both for half the year, with their punishments only confirmed after classes returned this week.
“It’s outrageous and concerning for people to violate one of the most basic democratic rights, the right to protest and express oneself freely,” Godwin, in his third year of a Bachelor of Arts, told Guardian Australia.
Clarke and Godwin, members of the university’s student representative council, were among a group who protested Turnbull’s appearance at a University of Sydney Law Society event in September 2022. In a video of the incident, the pair used a megaphone to denounce Turnbull, a University of Sydney alumni, as “ruling class scum”. The live event was cancelled and moved to an online presentation.
In the video, Godwin can be heard telling Turnbull to “fuck back off to Wentworth”, the eastern suburbs electorate he represented. Turnbull later claimed the protest was “at odds with every value Sydney University holds” and called the protesters “fascists”.
Protesters defended their demonstration as peaceful, but a University of Sydney spokesperson later apologised to Turnbull.
Clarke and Godwin claimed they received notices from the university a fortnight after the protest that a complaint had been made against them for breaching the university code of conduct. Neither would share that notice with the Guardian, saying it remained subject to confidentiality conditions, but said the allegations pertained to abuse, bullying and disrupting Turnbull’s event.
“We were prohibited from going public about the allegations or that we were under investigation,” Godwin claimed.
The university hired an external investigator for the process. The pair were able to give a statement and interview but claimed they weren’t permitted to see evidence against them or told who made the complaint.
At two meetings in October with the external investigator, including one at an off-campus office, Clarke and Godwin said they rejected the allegations against them. They said it wasn’t until this week, after semester one classes began on Monday, they got an outcome; both received a one semester suspension.
Clarke was previously given a one semester suspension over a separate protest over an anti-abortion group, but that penalty was suspended. Due to the latest decision, she said the suspension is overturned and she is now suspended from the university for an entire year.
The pair said several other protesters received suspended suspensions.
“In our defence, we said this was a protest. We weren’t there with the goal of shutting it down, it was with the goal of getting our perspective across. It was an act of free speech,” Clarke said.
A University of Sydney spokesperson wouldn’t confirm the punishments, saying they couldn’t comment on individual processes “due to our privacy responsibilities”. But they defended the institution’s decision, saying “we don’t take any disciplinary action lightly”.
“We consider attempts to shut down speakers who have been invited to our campuses to participate in an exchange of views and ideas as contrary to our Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom which defines the core values of our University in these matters,” they said in a statement.
“We have a rich history of activism and protest on our campuses, and all students and staff have the right to express themselves freely, as long as it’s done safely and in accordance with our policies and the law.”
“Protests may be rowdy and spirited, but they cannot interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. The safety and wellbeing of our community is our number one priority.”
Asked for response to the students’ complaints about the confidential nature of the disciplinary process, the university spokesperson said it was a standard condition.
“To protect the privacy of all our community, we do typically require confidentiality around misconduct investigations and outcomes,” they said.
“As this particular case relates to freedom of speech, students were released from this requirement – just in relation to their own case and outcome. We still require they don’t reveal information about other people involved in the case or investigation (apart from our Registrar, as identified in our University policy).”
Both students plan to appeal against their suspensions.
“It’s a blatant attempt at intimidation of student activists,” Godwin claimed.
“It’s a process that’s created to intimidate activists,” Clarke said. “It’s a difficult process to go through, we want to challenge it. Activism is a longstanding tradition of students at USYD.”