The head of the University of Sydney’s law school says the hard policing of student protests on campuses is out of step with community standards, and he has immediate concern for the welfare of staff and students on the receiving end.
NSW Police issued 14 penalty infringement notices for breaches of the Public Health Order at a student protest against changes in the higher education sector on Wednesday. Multiple students were roughly handled or pushed by police, as shown in video footage, and law professor Simon Rice had his legs swept from under him while observing the event.
NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay described the police response as “concerning”, while Greens MP David Shoebridge said police were “out of control”.
Sydney Law School Dean Professor Simon Bronitt said he had been “shocked by the events that occurred”. He said NSW Police or the Attorney-General should be seeking injunctions from the courts to prevent protests, rather than relying on hard policing.
“It is before the courts where the legal validity and proportionality of the public health constraints and reasonableness of planned police responses can be assessed,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
Professor Bronitt questioned tactics that were used at recent university protests, suggesting that demonstrators had been funnelled and contained before they were subjected to strategic arrests and interventions. At a separate protest last month, 21 PINs of $1000 each were issued and riot police were sent to disperse protesters.
“From past experience, these controversial policing practices only serve to escalate tensions and violence in the management of otherwise peaceful demonstrations,” Professor Bronitt said.
“My immediate concern is for the welfare of our staff and students who are, or may be in the future, on the receiving end of a ‘hard’ style of public order policing.”
Redfern Legal Centre’s police accountability solicitor Samantha Lee said she was concerned police were using COVID-19 health orders as a form of anti-protest legislation. “The purpose of the COVID-19 public health law is to prevent the spread of disease, not to prevent the public’s right to protest,” she said.
She said police had discretion to exercise force and that arrests should be used as a last resort.
NSW Police on Wednesday said they were responding to an unauthorised protest. “Members of the group attempted to disrupt traffic on multiple occasions and were removed from the road by officers,” their statement said.
Professor Britton said he supported Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence’s announcement that the university would call for an urgent discussion with NSW Police.
“How these laws are operationalised by the police on campus, day-to-day, is a matter on which the University community has a right to be consulted. That is standard of community policing, based upon respect for human rights, which regrettably was not on display yesterday,” Professor Bronitt said.
In a statement on Wednesday, the University of Sydney said: “We are very disturbed by the footage we’ve seen of today’s events. We encourage anyone who thinks that they were treated poorly by the police to lay a complaint.”
It was the strongest statement the university has made since a string of campus protests began earlier in the year. Students have been demonstrating against widespread course and job cuts in the sector, as well as federal government legislation that will raise the cost of humanities and communications courses by 113 per cent.