University of Otago shuts down free speech: students organise

Sudden explosions of struggle can seem to come from nowhere. The last time Otago students rose up in any way, albeit a chaotic and apolitical way, was the last Undie 500 riot in 2010. Several hundred students at various parties in North Dunedin, sick of being provoked and harassed by police pushed back. The police lost control of the streets and students proved yet again there is strength in numbers. But fighting for the right to party is not enough. The anti-student Voluntary Student Membership Act became law in 2012 with little opposition.

In that time when it seemed that students had gone silent, CCTV cameras have been installed despite lack of consultation or transparency, Humanities and PE have been cut in half under the same anti-democratic conditions. Support staff are being told to leave and with them will go years of institutional knowledge and will end valuable contributions that could have been kept. Changes to Student Health went ahead, and organised attempts by students to open up the discussion were undermined by management. Steadily the rage has built up.

This week’s removal and destruction of Critic’s Menstruation Issue by Otago Campus Watch, on the false belief that its cover illustration was ‘obscene’, is a new level of attack on students. This time the target was not a small group of students fighting to end sexual violence and struggling to gain attention for their cause. Or the partygoers at the infamous event on Castle Street this year which resulted in expulsions despite no crimes being committed. Nor was it the support staff who had been terrorised into isolating themselves from student support, and bullied into obeying commands for silence about doubts surrounding Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne’s plans to cut and slash the university.

It was an attack on the collaborative and open student magazine Critic, its creators and editors, and the freedom of expression which has made its operation sacred and a frequently credited source of student journalism. And it was women and non-binary students who produced the features, columns and thought-provoking illustrations of the censored Menstruation Issue, part of a student-led Period Week to dispel myths and stigma around personal bleeding. They built an impressive profile for the issue, and the University’s actions unintentionally achieved international exposure to their hard work and hopeful message.

The “pastoral” Campus Watch carried out the attack, seemingly without question of their legal standing, and according to the Critic, without notice or warning. There are students who allege individual Campus Watch staff have repeated, during tense encounters with students postering the censored Critic cover in protest, the Vice Chancellor’s personal comments of disgust. The very problem Menstruation Issue was trying address.

You can’t just make those kinds of attacks go away with a simple apology as student outrage demonstrated, when pressure led the current Otago Proctor into issuing an unreserved apology.

The students respond, “Apologies are not enough!” They mean that while students are still experiencing the desperation of not having enough to provide for themselves, it is outrageous that the Vice Chancellor and the Proctor will only concern themselves with being sorry.

Censorship is not a good look for them.

A hesitant and divided OUSA Executive has backed a student protest* two days after the seizure of Menstruation Issue, but their resolve was strengthened after a Student General Meeting at the time of writing this report, a tense forum which 120 students attended and voted by 63% to remove one of its Executive Officers. The measure failed because of a supermajority rule in OUSA’s constitution, but was very close to succeeding. Shocked Executive Officers immediately discussed with remaining students afterwards about what they could do to turn a new leaf.

Now that OUSA’s attention has been raised, it is time for keen socialists and feminists to begin the discussions that will lead to continued student action to pursue equality in the University, and organise students to win new democratic conditions that prioritise and respects contributions from students and workers.

A new student group called Student Voice has formed and currently has a mixed leftist political leaning. It came together very rapidly along with the announcements that Critic made as it was kept in the dark by Campus Watch initially on Monday 21 May about the removal of their magazines. Critic editor Joel McManus learned about the University’s actions in the national media after Campus Watch failed to give Critic straight answers about the removal of magazines and that the University had made ‘a mistake’. Student Voice members who are also from Young Labour and Campus Greens have been leading the campaign in the media defending students’ rights to free expression and development of public knowledge. This included an op-ed for a major news website.

All of this is occurring and building up a week after 500 or more students at University of Auckland shut down a section of downtown Symonds Street in protest at the cuts at their university. Their demands were for a new democratic university, keeping libraries open, better support and the sacking of their Vice Chancellor.

The cold comfort conditions of students all over Aotearoa New Zealand are becoming worse and the desperation is leading to scenes of personal devastation around our campuses. Harlene Hayne’s censorship attack comes during the anxious build-up to exams which conclude a long semester of assessment overload. It couldn’t have been a worse time for her to disrespect students, but it has unexpectedly created the conditions for unity between students and staff, and against neoliberalism in our universities.

*Student Voice and OUSA will be leading a protest starting at the Union Lawn outside the Critic and Radio 1 offices (off street from 640 Cumberland Street) at 12 noon, Friday 25 May.