ANU Censors Student’s Pro-Refugee Statement, Schmidt “Disappointed”

The cover of the marketing booklet, next to tweets from Schmidt and CoL

An ANU student has been removed from a booklet on award winners after refusing to withdraw a comment critiquing Australia’s refugee policy from her bio. Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt today expressed regret for this, saying he is “disappointed”.

Odette Shenfield graduated from her law degree last year. She received multiple awards at the 2017 prize ceremony, including the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department and Australian Government Solicitor Prize, and a University Medal. During her time at ANU, Shenfield was Environment Officer and founded Demos Journal.

The University, Shenfield told Observer, wanted to feature her profile in a marketing booklet, and sent her a number of questions to respond to. Shenfield said she wanted to help other law students with her profile. “I think if you see people at the end of the degree and they’ve won an award, you just see the positives … I wanted to share the highs and lows of my studies,” she said. She discussed difficulties she faced during her time at ANU, including isolation and stress.

As part of her bio, she also discussed a course she had particularly enjoyed, “The Public Interest Clinical Program gave me new insights into the human reality behind the government’s inhumane refugee policies,” she wrote. This is the section with which the University took issue.

Shenfield’s original response was 1500 words, she said, which was then edited down. Shenfield felt the edit did not capture her meaning, and sent her own cut-down version. ANU accepted her version, but asked her to remove the refugee line, she said, because the booklet was meant to be “politically neutral”. Shenfield claimed the University expressed concerns that the line would affect ANU’s ability to get prize donations. When she insisted the line should remain, her profile was removed from the booklet.

The ANU Refugee Action Committee told Observer, “It is extremely disappointing that this organisation, which purports to be a place for ‘thought leaders’ is all too happy to sacrifice the free expression of an award-winning student because they are worried about upsetting their government donors.” When asked for comment, ANU said it “actively encourages freedom of speech among staff and students”. “Our student speaker at the final graduation ceremony in 2017, Geraldine Fela gave an impassioned and eloquent speech on Australia‘s refugee policy,” ANU told Observer.

The removal, initially reported yesterday in Canberra Times, has seen national coverage. The ANU College of Law admitted on Twitter last night that it had “made a poor call”. “We encourage students to speak out on issues they feel are important,” the tweet said. Schmidt retweeted this today, adding, “I am disappointed this happened, and everyone has learned from it.”

Shenfield encouraged others to speak up for what they believe in. “I hope [this incident] encourages other people to speak out on issues that they care about, and particularly refugees … the Palm Sunday rally is coming up, if people care about [refugees] it’s probably a good way to have your voice heard.”