From Back Page to Front Page: ‘Advice’ from the ANU

As many of you will be aware, the “Advice from Religion” infographic on the back page of Woroni, Edition 5 2013, caused a flurry of activity.  However, what you might not know is that over the course of a week, the Woroni board was twice summoned to the Chancelry, individually threatened with disciplinary action along with the authors of the piece, and informed that Woroni’s funding allocation could be compromised.

The infographic was the fifth in a series that satirised facets of different religions; chronologically, Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism. The “Advice from Religion” piece published in Edition 5 focused on Islam.  Aside from questioning the interpretation of the infographic, many of the letters we received in response also condemned the piece as insulting and offensive to Islam and to religion in general. Others highlighted the importance of publishing satirical material that scrutinises religious dogma.

As editors of a student publication, we have grown accustomed to receiving heated feedback from students and staff. However, in this instance the extent of interference with Woroni by the Chancelry was unprecedented.

The day following publication, the entire Woroni board was asked to attend a meeting with members of the ANU Chancelry, including Richard Baker, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience). The Chancelry wished to discuss the Woroni board’s response to a formal complaint submitted by the International Students Department.

In a later statement to Woroni, the Chancelry maintained that the article breached the “University rules” and the Australian Press Council Principles. Furthermore, the Chancelry commented that the “the University has a large international footprint and is mindful of maintaining its reputation of providing a welcoming environment for a diverse student and academic population.”

The Chancelry’s position is that the piece posed a threat to the ANU’s reputation and security. “[I]n a world of social media, [there is] potential for material such as the article in question to gain attention and traction in the broader world and potentially harm the interests of the University and the university community.”

“This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands- Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year,” the Chancelry told Woroni.

In light of these concerns, the Chancelry asked for an apology and an official public retraction of the piece. Woroni decided to respond in a similar manner to how it has to other complaints received in the past, by publishing an apology to any readers who felt victimised, while stressing that the piece was intended to be satirical.

Like every edition so far this year, Edition 5 was later uploaded as a PDF document to the Woroni website and Facebook page, including the back page. Following this, the Chancelry demanded a second, non-negotiable meeting with the Woroni board, and the three authors of the piece, attended by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic). At this meeting, all Woroni editors and all three authors of the piece were threatened with disciplinary notice under Section 3.1(b) of the ANU Disciplinary Statue, should the PDF remain online.

The consequences of academic misconduct under the disciplinary proceedings range between a warning letter to academic exclusion from the university. No legal representation is permitted at disciplinary hearings. The Chancelry also indicated that Woroni’s allocation of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) may be compromised by the situation.

The Woroni board subsequently elected to simply remove the back page from the PDF of Edition 5. As promised by email, all disciplinary action against the board and the writers of the piece were consequently dropped.

The university governs individual students through the ANU Disciplinary Statute, but the ANU’s authority over Woroni, a student newspaper independent of the university and the student’s association, is an extremely grey area. Who should hold Woroni to account? The ANU, which provides the predominant amount of Woroni’s funding through the allocation of SSAF? Or its students, who Woroni was constitutionally established to represent?

Although the issue was eventually resolved, Woroni is concerned about the implications of these events for freedom of speech and, more generally, the role of student publications. Woroni regularly features material that is challenging, and even at times confronting. By their very nature, universities are forums to critique ideas and beliefs. University newspapers – as a platform for students – should ideally reflect this role.

But where should the line be drawn? The issue is complex and never black-and-white; at no point in the decision-making process during these events were the Woroni board unanimous.

The editors hope that Woroni will continue to be a platform for discussion and criticism. However, from this experience we have learnt the importance of balance and tact when dealing with highly sensitive issues.

We welcome any further feedback on this issue.

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