ANU asks pro-Palestinian encampments to disband as students claim ‘witch-hunt’ taking place

<span>Australian National University students say they have been warned there could be a breach of a code of conduct if a pro-Palestinian encampment is not disbanded this week.</span><span>Photograph: Luca Ittimani/The Guardian</span>
Australian National University students say they have been warned there could be a breach of a code of conduct if a pro-Palestinian encampment is not disbanded this week.Photograph: Luca Ittimani/The Guardian

The Australian National University has become the second university to request pro-Palestine students disband on-campus encampments, as the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) backed the protesters.

On Wednesday morning, a small group of students attended a meeting with management at the ANU in Canberra, where they said they were advised to vacate their camps by Friday or risk breaching the university’s code of conduct.

Only the students present at the meeting were directed to vacate.

“We were called in … and told we hadn’t breached a code of conduct, but if we didn’t vacate on Friday we could have [breached it],” a spokesperson for the ANU’s encampment said. “It’s outrageous.”

Related: Deakin University requests dismantling of pro-Palestine encampment as protesters pledge to stay

On Tuesday, students involved in the encampments at Victoria’s Deakin University were similarly requested to disband effective immediately, with management citing “safety, security and amenity of all campus users”. They have so far refused the request.

A spokesperson for the ANU said the meeting was held to discuss how students could continue to protest in a manner that ensured the “health, safety and wellbeing of everyone”.

“The university has communicated its expectations to ANU students in this meeting,” they said.

“As per the university’s code of conduct and student discipline rule, [the] ANU expects participants to follow these reasonable directions.

“The university supports students’ right to protest but these activities must be safe and not cause unnecessary harm or damage to our campus or community.”

Discussions were under way as to how the students would formally respond. A snap rally was set to be held on Thursday.

Pro-Palestine camps have spread to universities in every state in Australia after beginning at the University of Sydney almost three weeks ago. Last week, Victoria police wrote to university vice-chancellors requesting greater powers to shut down the encampments, adding that if they were allowed to keep growing there was a “strong likelihood of violence occurring between protest and counter-protest groups”.

The ANU’s branch of the NTEU has backed in the students. Posting on X, branch members confirmed their attendance at tomorrow’s rally, adding they stood with students and “in support of academic freedom, freedom of speech and peaceful protest”.

An open letter from Australian academics and university staff in support of student protests had garnered more than 700 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

Separately, 10 leading human rights organisations, including the Human Rights Law Centre and Amnesty International Australia, have written to vice-chancellors at universities where encampments have been established, urging them to protect the right to public assembly and refrain from inappropriate suspensions of students, penalties on protesters or police intervention.

ANU student protester Nick Reich, who was present at the meeting, told Guardian Australia only the seven students “arbitrarily chosen” to meet with management were warned that they may be reprimanded if they did not vacate the camps.

When asked why they had been targeted, Reich said management advised that the list of protesters had been put together by campus security. He said management then offered them a pen and paper to pass on further names of organisers.

“They indicated they will continue to call out individuals in the encampment and give them similar directions,” he said.

Reich told a rally outside Parliament House it was a “witch-hunt”.

“This is an attack on our basic rights and this is an attempt to get us to list accomplices,” he said.

A spokesperson for the ANU said students weren’t “arbitrarily chosen” but were “encampment participants who have been identified as ANU students by the university”.

“The meeting was constructive and respectful,” they said.

Zach Smith, the ACT branch secretary of the CFMEU, told the rally the ANU should be “condemned in the strongest terms”.

“ANU, a university which is meant to be a pillar of freedom of speech, threatened student activists engaged in peaceful protest and peaceful resistance,” he said.

On Friday afternoon, the ANU’s deputy vice-chancellor (academic), Prof Grady Venville, wrote to every participant in the encampment who the university was able to identify to remind them of the student code of conduct.

“I am informally letting you know that I have received multiple reports and complaints that the encampment in which you are participating and your behaviours are potentially in breach of the student code of conduct,” she wrote.

“The encampment is dividing our community and causing members of our community harm.”

Venville urged the students to “reflect on your behaviours” and consider how they could respectfully protest without “causing harm” to members of the community.

Separately, the ANU’s vice-chancellor, Prof Genevieve Bell, wrote to ANU staff and students reiterating the university had a “long history” of student protests but that could not come “at the expense of respect and inclusion”.

“ANU must be a place where we can hold hard conversations. Where debate has shifted to causing hate and hurt, we are stepping in,” she wrote.

Last week, it was revealed a student protester who said Hamas deserved “unconditional support” had been suspended from the ANU, pending disciplinary action.

Speaking on ABC Radio, the student said she was in “complete disagreement” with their strategy but “nothing can justify what has been happening to the Palestinian people for 75 years”.

Separately, an investigation was undertaken into a student association meeting where Nazi gestures were allegedly used during a motion put forward by the ANU Union of Jewish Students to address antisemitism.

Bell said in her email she was “deeply concerned” by reports of the conduct of some students at that meeting.

“We have taken disciplinary action following this event and will continue to take action where it is necessary,” she wrote.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Alex Ryvchin said the ANU had taken the “right move”.

“Universities must be kept safe and accessible for all,” he said.

“There is a right to peaceful protest but there is no right to camp on university grounds, to threaten others, or to openly support terrorism. Other universities should quickly follow ANU’s example.”