In an attack on academic and political freedom, Roz Ward, co-founder of Safe Schools, was suspended from her position at La Trobe University for misconduct.

In a private Facebook post, Ward had described the Australian flag as racist. But just days after her suspension, a combination of a legal challenge, staunch union support, and a wave of anger on social media, forced La Trobe management to back down and drop the allegations.

The Turnbull government, the Murdoch press and the Christian Right have led a vicious, homophobic assault on the Safe Schools program, which seeks to combat homophobia in schools.

After the government cut back the program’s content and withdrew future funding, The Australian has targeted Ward, who is a member of Socialist Alternative. This is in an attempt to discredit the program in Victoria, after the Labor government promised to keep funding it.

Ward had already voluntarily resigned from another position advising the Victorian government over the Facebook comments, before La Trobe took the step of suspending her. Its decision clearly came at the behest of figures like Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, and former Liberal Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett (who threatened to withdraw funding from Beyond Blue for Safe Schools related research projects at La Trobe if Ward was allowed to continue in the job).

The suspension was not only another attack on Safe Schools, it was also an attack on workers’ rights.

For academics, the issue is tied up with threats to academic freedom as universities become increasingly reliant on corporate and private funds. NTEU Victorian Secretary, Colin Long, pointed the finger at the university administration, saying, “That La Trobe University has apparently allowed itself to be cowed into participating in this anti-intellectual, anti-democratic attack reflects the dismal state of intellectual capacity at the senior management level.”

The NTEU’s strong response and the solidarity that flowed in for Ward is a lesson in the power of union and grassroots action to stop victimisation, defend Safe Schools and beat back the right.

By Geraldine Fela

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