What about my freedom of speech?

Fifty years ago, Madeline Ward’s grandfather demonstrated against the Vietnam War on the front lawns of the University of Sydney’s famous quadrangle.

Now, the 21-year-old art history and English literature student potentially faces dis­ciplinary action, perhaps resulting in suspension or expulsion, for a rowdy protest on the campus last month.

The protest was aimed at a speech by psychologist and sex therapist Bettina Arndt as part of her “Fake Rape Crisis” campus tour. The protesters first occupied a corridor outside the venue hired by the Liberal Club, used loudhailers to drown Ms Arndt out, and then apparently tried to block some of those wishing to attend from entering the venue. Eventually the police were called.

On her website, Ms Arndt said she had asked for “formal complaints” to be lodged against the protesters. She has also set up a Change.org petition, signed by 750 people by yesterday, “demanding Sydney University return the Liberal Club students’ security fee and take action against the named protesters”.

As one of two student union women’s officers at the university, Ms Ward said she understood the extent of the sexual assault crisis on campus and she felt Ms Arndt’s description of it as a “fake crisis” would be potentially demeaning and hurtful for sexual assault ­survivors.

“So we thought about complaining to the university to stop her from speaking, but we decided against that for a couple of reasons, mainly because I believe in the right to free speech, and also because I believe that ideas like Bettina Arndt’s need to be rigorously challenged in a public setting,” Ms Ward said.

“For us, the best way to do that was through a public protest. We wanted to present another, albeit passionate and loud, side of the ­argument. We’re not going to pass up an opportunity for a protest, especially when Sydney University is potentially the most politically active campus in Australia, and historically has been since the Vietnam War demos.”

Ms Ward said that since the protest last month she had been attacked in many ways, from comments on her physical appearance to rape and death threats.

“Obviously I am a political activist,” she said. “That is my job, and I love my job and love being an activist and I love fighting for positive social change, but I don’t think my education should be at stake for expressing my political opinions in a way I think is respectful and doesn’t stray into any territory of bigotry or hate. So I think it’s really inappropriate that all of a sudden the degrees of five young university students are on the line.”

Ms Ward said the protest was a straightforward affair rather than some form of US-style “no-platforming” designed to block ideas she and fellow activists disagreed with; although Ms Arndt was indeed prevented from fully expressing her opinions, her speech did in fact go ahead.

Ms Ward said she thought it would be “ridiculous” to impose financial penalties on universities that failed to prevent protests, as suggested in a recent Centre for Independent Studies policy paper, and equally misguided to attempt to make protesters pay for the increased security necessitated by their protests, as recently mentioned by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan.

“For me it smacks of historical state interventions into student protest culture,” she said. “In the late 1960s, the government revoked any commonwealth scholarships for students who were arrested at anti-Vietnam War demonstrations.”

Ms Ward said she was concerned that if protests were stifled because students feared incurring large fines or severe disciplinary action, many students would be deterred from engaging in political discussions, which she felt would be a huge loss.

“Protest is a fundamental part of democracy,” she added. “We have a right to protest. You might not agree with the tactics of protest, but if you support free speech, by virtue of that you have to support the right to protest.”