During the week of ANUSA elections, a student made an online post in the ‘Stalkerspace’ forum containing defamatory content about a candidate running on the Amplify ticket.
The post contained offensive statements about several disadvantaged groups in ANU and personally singled out the Amplify candidate as a person acting against the interests of ANU students. The post in question attacked the validity of mental health support and contained discriminatory statements about different cultural groups on campus.
The forum administrators quickly removed the post yet many students had already seen the defamatory statement.
The matter fell to Probity officers who made the recommendation to the Returning Officer that the student’s ANUSA membership be revoked. This recommendation sought to effectively exclude the student from benefitting from the portion of their SSAF fees that ANUSA receives, which ANUSA uses to support clubs and societies and provide events for the larger ANU population. Moreover, the revocation of membership would deny the student ANUSA provides several services such as mental health support and pro-bono legal advisement.
Here, the Returning Officer had the obligation to make an independent decision informed by consultation with the Probity officers, as well as ANUSA’s executive and staff. However, it appears that this consultation never took place.
Given the sensitivity of the circumstances, Probity made a bold recommendation to exclude the student from enjoying the privileges provided by ANUSA. Probity expected that this recommendation would warrant further consultation, yet the Returning Officer promptly returned Probity’s email, with the decision that the student’s ANUSA membership would be revoked.
This lack of consultation is problematic given the swiftness in depriving a student of the benefits of their SSAF fees and degrading their student experience. Moreover the student in question was not given the opportunity to respond to the allegations made against them.
Though the matter at hand concerned particularly offensive and defamatory imputations, it begs the question of how offensive an online post has to be before a student’s rights are stripped without the opportunity to defend themselves.
Probity found the speed of the decision surprising, with one ANUSA staffer extremely unhappy about depriving the student of their benefits. General Secretary, Sam Duncan had asked the Returning Officer to reconsider, however a lag in communication found one of the Probity officers notifying the student before matters could be reconsidered.
This miscommunication, or lack thereof, extended to ANUSA President Ben Gill who became informed of the situation when the student posted in another ANU online forum.
The overall process of isolating a student from the general student body is problematic here. There was no consultation, no opportunity for the student to defend themselves and a lack of communication regarding review of the Returning Officer’s decision.
Moreover, the constitutionality of revoking the student’s membership may be called into question. Section 7(1) of the ANUSA Constitution holds that there are no provisions for disciplining ordinary members of ANUSA. This reiterates issues surrounding the swift assuredness of the decision.
Despite the lack of review concerning the Returning Officer’s initial decision to revoke the student’s membership, the situation has since undergone review with ANUSA executive. President Ben Gill stated that the revocation has been found to be invalid with the ANUSA Constitution and Election regulations. Gill cited the lack of precedence as a contributing factor to the swiftness and miscommunication surrounding the matter.
Gill also indicated that the severity of this situation has informed the proposed amendments to ANUSA’s Constitution in the upcoming OGM on Friday 24th September. Special Resolutions to amend the ANUSA Constitution Resolution (2) proposes to ‘amend section 7 of the Constitution to confirm the capacity of the Association to revoke membership rights’. Further under the ANUSA ‘Overview of Amendments’, Special Resolution (2) is supported by ‘note’ that the Returning Officer’s power to revoke membership under Electoral Regulations must ‘require the consent of the Executive, to ensure multiple stakeholders are consulted on this decision’.
Given these sudden amendments to the ANUSA Constitution, it appears the organisation is trying to salvage the situation. The note attached to Special Resolution (2) seems to be aimed at making consultation a required step of any future revocation of membership. However, this amendment also appears to have little impact in the situation already played out.
It seems that ANUSA have learned from their mistakes, seeking to enforce consultation in future serious matters of this kind.