- A Melbourne University student plans to launch legal action against the university’s student union.
- The union has called on the university to divest, boycott and sanction ties with Israel and Israeli academics.
- Law student Justin Riazaty alleges the union acted outside its purpose and violated the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.
A Melbourne University student intends to launch legal action against the student union, demanding it rescinds a controversial motion calling for the university to boycott Israel.
Postgraduate law student Justin Riazaty, 21, has engaged pro bono lawyers and has sent a letter of demand to the University of Melbourne Student Union relating to a motion that was passed on April 29. He is also gathering signatures for an open class-action lawsuit.
University of Melbourne student Justin Riazaty is planning to sue his university’s student union for calling on the university to boycott and divest from Israel.Credit:Chris Hopkins
The motion called for the university, one of Australia’s top-ranked tertiary institutions, to launch an academic boycott and cut ties with “Israeli institutions, researchers and academics that support the Israeli oppression of Palestinians”. It also called for divestment from corporations involved with Israel.
The “Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) movement”, has gained traction internationally. Harvard University’s student paper published an editorial in support of the movement. In January more than 30 acts withdrew from Sydney Festival because of Israeli sponsorship.
Riazaty said the union, of which he is a member, had until 4pm on May 17 to rescind their motion, to admit it went against the union’s purposes and to draft an apology to be approved by Riazaty and then published on their social media channels to avoid legal action.
Riazaty, a Liberal Party member who is not Jewish but claims to have has many friends who are, said he believed the student union acted outside of its purpose as a student union (violating the Associations Incorporation Reform Act 2012) and alleges it violated the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001. He said while it affected Jewish students and people who supported Israel, there was “a bigger injustice here”.
“This sets a precedent,” he said. “I felt I couldn’t let this go and stand by and do nothing.”
“A student representative body is for all students, not a particular group of students. You as an individual may feel a certain way and are more than welcome to share your views but when it’s coming from a body which has defined purposes to support all students, it changes the game a little bit. It’s supposed to be independent. It’s a very different set of circumstances,” he claimed.
“Positions on complex student political issues, I don’t think falls into what their scope or what they are supposed to be doing,” he said.
Riazaty has been president of the Melbourne University Russian Society and helped set up the Melbourne University Monarchist Society in 2020 – which has since disbanded – but was neither active nor a participant. He has also held some roles with the Young Liberals.
Rosalyn Gladwin, from Gladwin Legal, who is representing Riazaty, said the firm was happy to “support a student who is standing up for his fellow students and fighting for justice, in particular where an issue arises that undermines the multicultural fabric of Australian society.”
Earlier this month, The Age reported that Melbourne University distanced itself from the union, saying the motion wasn’t the position of the university, nor was it endorsed or supported.
The union is a self-governing body operating as a separate entity to the university. The union has about 35,000 members, with 22 of them democratically elected voting council members.
On Friday afternoon, the university’s Farrago magazine tweeted that the union had passed a motion to allocate $8000 from the “whole of union” budget to respond to the letter from Gladwin Legal, which threatens legal action against the union.
A Melbourne University spokeswoman said Jewish students and staff were valued members of the university, and that the university was proud of its relationships with the Jewish community worldwide. The spokeswoman said freedom of speech was a core value of the university.
“We expect all members of our community to exercise these rights respectfully,” she said.
The union motion also suggested that Zionism was a ‘racist, colonial ideology’, but condemned “any and all forms of anti-semitism against students of the Jewish faith”. The motion noted that the union stood in solidarity with Jewish students and that Judaism and Zionism “shouldn’t be conflated as one”.
Since the motion passed, it’s been claimed that those who moved the motion have been subject to online abuse. On Wednesday, Students for Palestine-UniMelb held a “speak-out” at the university to condemn “the treatment of Palestinians by the State of Israel.”
Student union president Sophie Nguyen said the union was aware of the action and was seeking legal advice and as such couldn’t comment.
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