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Student responsibilities

Freedom of expression guidance and information

This guide provides practical advice to help University of Sydney students more clearly understand their rights and responsibilities around freedom of expression at university, and the expectations of behaviour set out by the Student Charter.

This guide is useful for the broader university community - in particular, international students, student activists, leaders of student groups, event and protest organisers as well as people planning to submit a complaint relating to the behaviour of students on campus.

Freedom of Expression at the University of Sydney

As a student at the University of Sydney, you have rights and responsibilities as an individual and as a member of a group – in relation to the manner and form in which you exchange ideas and information, express views publicly and take part in protests. Robust, non-violent, informed and civil debate is how our community is able to challenge ways of thinking and bring about positive societal change.

The University aims to provide our students with a safe place to enhance knowledge, listen to and engage with varied perspectives, try new experiences, and develop and advocate ideas and opinions. We are home to numerous clubs and societies where you can have a platform to debate and express your political and social viewpoints.

At the University of Sydney, you have the right to express your ideas and opinions freely, without censorship, as referenced in the Charter of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom – as long as these do not infringe upon public safety or rights of others. Students are expected to act in accordance with the values and principles set out in the Student Charter. This applies to all University related activities and events, whether on campus or online.

The University has a duty to foster and protect the wellbeing of its staff and students. While this duty does not extend to protecting students from feeling offended by the opinions of others with whom they may disagree, the University can take reasonable and proportionate measures to restrict speech that causes or is likely to cause: an imminent risk of public disorder, undue interference in the rights of others, or offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people based on the grounds of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

Acknowledging the impact of inequalities of power on Freedom of Expression

Our students come from diverse backgrounds, and hold a wide variety of perspectives, values and beliefs. The University supports and respects the right of all students to express their opinions and political views in a peaceful and non-violent manner: freedom of speech is fundamental to the conduct of a democratic society and the pursuit of intellectual and societal progress.

It is important to acknowledge that individuals coming from cultural and marginalised backgrounds with reduced influence or access to power may encounter limitations in their ability to express ideas freely. Intersectionality refers to the way in which different aspects of a person’s identity can expose them to overlapping forms of discrimination and marginalisation, for example, someone that is from a disadvantaged background that also has a disability.

Students from different countries or backgrounds may feel uncomfortable participating in tutorials or group work which includes criticism of their home country government. They might self-censor or be censored by other students for their speech, views and action and experience fear of being reported to their home country government, which could have serious consequences for them or their families. Some students may have also experienced limited information environments or even misinformation, which can result in very specific views and presents a potential motivating factor for confronting people who threaten their worldview. Threatening others is never acceptable, regardless of one's background or beliefs. Respectful conversation can help foster mutual understanding and tolerance among individuals with differing beliefs. It is also important to consider that some students may experience heightened distress during and after protesting, as well as when police are present on campus.

The University of Sydney has a rich history of student activism and peaceful protest beginning with the historically significant 1965 Freedom Ride led by Charles Perkins and fellow students which highlighted discrimination faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia. More recently students have campaigned for climate action, advocated for an end to sexual misconduct on campus, protested against COVID restrictions and opposed a proposal to shorten teaching semesters.

Examples of activity which meets the standard of civility:

  • peaceful protests, which include silent protests
  • picket lines which seek to peacefully inform and persuade but do not obstruct access to campus
  • boycotts
  • rallies
  • carrying signs
  • engaging in noisy activities that do not disrupt a planned event
  • organising counter-events
  • engaging civilly during Q&A sessions
  • issuing statements
  • petitions
  • distribution of materials
  • use of social media to express counterviews.

The above actions do not meet this standard if they intend to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people on the grounds of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

Courage and civility are greatly valued at our University, as is promotion of a culture where people disagree well. In practice this means respecting that others may have different opinions, enabling others rights to speak and be heard, being open to challenging assumptions, unconscious bias and privilege, seeking out a range of evidence and opinions, practicing critical thinking and being open to the possibility of being wrong.

Deplatforming, also known as no-platforming, is the action or practice of a person or group intentionally preventing or denying others who hold opposing views from having a platform in which their views can be heard. For example, this could involve damaging stalls or posters, or using loud music to drown out a speaker seeking to exercise their right to free speech. This can be a highly contentious issue, as it involves a balance between freedom of speech and the responsibility of the university to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students free from unlawful discrimination.

Students should be aware that if they participate in certain actions they may be breaking the law (risking both police action and prosecution), or potentially engaging in misconduct as defined by the University of Sydney (Student Discipline Rule) 2016. A range of consequences may be applied for student misconduct from a warning and request to stop the behaviour, being asked to leave an event, mediation, suspended suspension or, in severe cases of illegal behaviour, expulsion from the University.

Examples of actions with potential consequences:

  • acts of violence, threats, destruction of property
  • intimidation, bullying, harassment or unlawful discrimination
  • incitement of violence or hatred
  • engaging in indecent assault or sexual misconduct
  • threatening or physically obstructing people who wish to cross a picket line on campus
  • stopping students from accessing classrooms, or disruption of classes including online 'zoom bombing’
  • preventing staff from safely accessing their workspace, materials, equipment or belongings
  • stalking of others, including non-consensual physical or electronic surveillance
  • doxing (collecting someone's personal information and releasing it online without their knowledge or consent, such as their name, address, phone number and financial information)
  • disrupting activities or events so they can’t go ahead or forcing changes to an event format
  • silencing a speaker
  • purposely blocking AV equipment or views of attendees
  • reporting on the activities of fellow students or staff to foreign embassies
  • threats or undue pressure on academic or professional staff to change course content
  • coercion through threatening to share information with an individual’s family or friends.

The University has in place crowd management protocols and its own security professionals who are trained to ensure a safe environment for events and protests. The University does not invite police onto campus to manage events and protests proactively. NSW Police make its own decisions and take actions it considers necessary in the interest of public safety. Support is available for our community from our Counselling and Psychological Services for students and our Employee Assistance Provider for staff.

Event and protest organisers are responsible for communicating this guidance and the expectations of the University to invited speakers. Event and protest organisers should also proactively consider whether there may be any safety concerns relating to their planned activity - this may be informed by the profile of speaker or the topic for discussion. For events, students following the event booking process through Client Spaces will be triaged to Protective Services for review and risk assessment. Proactive support provided to event organisers can include reviewing the location of the event, conducting a walk through, or liaising with invited speakers. Additional preparation before the event could include sharing information for university support services to concerned groups or individuals, considering whether to use an experienced impartial moderator, or whether it is appropriate to put in place a ticketed or pre-registration process for the event.

For protests with no venue booking, organisers are encouraged to notify Protective Services.

Impacted by unacceptable behaviour?

The safety and wellbeing of our University community is our number one priority, and any forms of bullying or harassment on campus are not tolerated. For assistance:

  • University Protective Services – Call 02 9351 3333 to reach our protective services team, available 24 hours a day to assist in an emergency or if you are feeling unsafe on campus.
  • Emergency services – If your life is being threatened, if someone is seriously ill or injured, or if you have just witnessed a serious incident dial triple zero (000) for emergency services (fire/ambulance/police).
  • Student Wellbeing service - Offers a range of confidential and free health, wellbeing and personal supports. This includes support for any student experiencing distress as a result of situations as bullying, threats to safety, impinging freedom of speech or foreign government harassment. If you are experiencing wellbeing concerns and would like to connect with somebody, the first step is to complete our registration form. Once your form is received, a clinician from Student Wellbeing will call you to discuss your support needs.
  • Student Affairs Unit – To report an issue of concern or make a complaint about aspects of your student life through our complaints process:
    • phone: 1800 SYD HLP (1800 793 457) our confidential helpline service available from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday;
    • email: 
    • complete the online form and a staff member will contact you.

The complaints process may involve an assisted resolution. This could be an agreed set of actions, a facilitated discussion or an undertaking. In very serious cases, your complaint may be referred for handling under the University’s Student Discipline Rule.

Student Centre



1800 SYD UNI (1800 793 864)
or +61 2 8627 1444 (outside Australia)

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Last updated: 27 March 2024

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