Birth of a free speech martyr

27 May Birth of a free speech martyr

Aaron Patrick – The Australian Financial Review – Wednesday 27 May 2020

China ties Drew Pavlou has become a cause celebre for taking his university to task. Before he was dubbed the world’s most famous undergraduate, Drew Pavlou was merely a “particularly annoying” student making life hell for the University of Queensland over its close relationship with China.

Now, with Pavlou predicting he will be expelled on Friday, the 20-year-old university senator is in danger of becoming a martyr to free speech, academic freedom, and the right of undergraduates to act like court jesters.

The anti-Chinese Communist Party activist’s formal troubles began after a jokey comment on social media directed at the campus Confucius Institute, a cultural and languages studies centre that is part of a global network funded by the Chinese government.

“I am looking forward to me and my friends giving the Confucius Institute director a mental breakdown by enrolling in his course,” Pavlou wrote.

After a La Trobe University academic who specialises in Tibetan linguistics complained, Pavlou says he was formally cautioned by the university in January.

The incident marked the beginning of a quasi-legal process that could put the university’s financial dependence on China on trial. “I did enrol in introductory Chinese,” Pavlou says.

“I wanted to learn Mandarin. Then I withdrew from the course. It is not worth all the pain.”

Despite the clear warning, he continued taunting the university, which responded with a 186-page dossier of allegations last month about his activities and threatened to expel him.

After Pavlou and his lawyer walked out of the disciplinary hearing last week, the three-person panel upheld 18 of the 23 charges against him.

In a sign of how seriously the university is taking the case, it hired a partner from law firm Minter Ellison to be present for the hearing: Tom Fletcher, who represented Griffith University in a bitter case against a doctoral candidate that went to the state Ombudsman, Civil and Administrative Tribunal, Crime and Misconduct Commission, Supreme Court and the Federal Court.

Pavlou was accompanied by Anthony Morris, QC, a bow-tiewearing barrister and free speech advocate who represented two Queensland University of Technology students sued for racial discrimination.

“We’re very similar in temperament,” Pavlou says. “He is a maverick and competitive, and doesn’t mind standing up to authority.”

The charges against Pavlou are meant to be confidential. But the fact they include allegations that he damaged the university’s reputation by criticising its close relationship with China have been widely reported, helping to generate sympathy for Pavlou from across the political spectrum.

Those who have expressed support for Pavlou include Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, Liberal senators Sarah Henderson and James Paterson, Liberal-National MPs Matthew Canavan and Andrew Laming, academic Clive Hamilton, Human Rights Watch director Elaine Pearson, Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Free Tibet Organisation chief executive Sam Walston, Wall Street Journal editorial page writer Walter Russell Mead, and Bill Browder, a US-born financier and campaigner against Vladimir Putin.

The right in particular has enthusiastically embraced Pavlou, who is, ironically, a follower of leftist writer Noam Chomsky.

Pavlou, who has previously discussed his struggles with anxiety and depression, says the support has buoyed his confidence, which sank when he received the thick envelope detailing the allegations against him, including annotated copies of Facebook posts about Chinese state influence on campus, and a remark denigrating commerce students.

“Going public and having such support from the public has really given me back a sense of power,” he says.

“I felt like my life was destroyed when I first got it.” University chancellor Peter Varghese told The Guardian comments last June by China’s consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, condemning Pavlou and other pro-Hong Kong protesters were “unacceptable”.

Xu is an adjunct professor at the university, and Varghese said foreign diplomats would no longer be awarded honorary academic titles.

Pavlou’s primary target is vicechancellor Peter Hoj, who has led the university’s relationship with Chinese authorities.

He has behaved with typical undergraduate disrespect towards Hoj, including revealing on social media that his colleagues were contributing towards a surprise retirement present: a tribute book.

At the last Senate meeting two weeks ago, university officials warned senators about respecting confidentiality. Earlier that day, Paterson disclosed that Hoj received a $200,000 bonus, in part for growing the university’s relationship with China.

If he is expelled, Pavlou says he has been advised to go straight to court. “We have absolutely no confidence the senate disciplinary appeal will be impartial,” Pavlou says. “Tony wants to appeal straight to the Queensland Supreme Court.”

If he succeeds, Pavlou says he plans to run for office again, as student union president. Having such support from the public has really given me back a sense of power.

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