What happened in 2013 to QUT student Calum Thwaites might have happened to your teenage son or mine.
Thwaites and his fellow students were embroiled in what has become known as the ‘Indigenous Only Students’ computer lab case’, and is a sobering insight into what is happening in our universities.
According to Calum, “Three students went into the computer lab on 28 May 2013. Very shortly after entering the room, they were asked if they were indigenous. When they said they weren’t, they were asked to leave.”
One student, Alex Wood, indignantly posted on Facebook ‘Just got kicked out of the unsigned indigenous computer room. QUT stopping segregation with segregation…?’ that resulted in comment, debate and some jokes. Calum Thwaites was not one of the students ordered from the computer lab or involved in the subsequent Facebook postings.
“There was a comment by a Facebook account using my name and a picture of me – but it wasn’t actually me. Whether this was a friend who made a fake account of me as a joke or something more sinister I won’t know because, by the time I had found out about the AHRC complaint, I had made Facebook suspend the account.”
The Facebook posts reached Cynthia (“Cindy”) Prior, the admin officer who’d ordered the students out. Prior complained to the director of the unit, insisting the Facebook posts offended and were directed at her personally, attacking her based on her race. She feared an underground white supremacy group at QUT about to come after her with baseball bats.
“QUT’s Equity Director sent out emails to students who had commented on the post – not all were from QUT as it wasn’t a QUT-run or QUT-specific page.
“I received an email asking me to remove the comment made by the other account. I responded that this wasn’t me, that I had no idea what they were talking about. I hadn’t seen the comment or even the thread. It wasn’t until 2015 that I saw it for the first time.” He was told QUT would ‘look into it’ that he shouldn’t worry but focus instead on his studies.
“I didn’t think much of it after that and didn’t even think of following it up.”
Cindy Prior took sick leave; opening talks with QUT to settle issues she felt had affected her. Under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act actions have a one-year time limit for lodging of complaints with the AHRC; one day after the incident, Prior lodged her complaint, naming QUT, two staff members and seven students as respondents, alleging students had breached Section 18C. Prior named Calum Thwaites as one of the students.
QUT and Prior’s lawyers early requested the AHRC not to notify the students as negotiations continued; the hope was that settlement could be reached without students being involved or even notified of the case. Negotiations lasted over a year, then Prior changed solicitors, and after rejecting QUT’s settlement proposal requiring dropped charges against the students.
At this point, the AHRC began to pressure the university to notify the students that they were the subjects of litigation. QUT, according to Calum Thwaites, delayed, finally notifying the students at the end of July 2015, three business days before a conciliation conference had been scheduled for early August.
Not all students were notified; many had finished their courses and moved on, after the two and a half years since the incident had taken place.
Calum remembers, “I had an email from QUT’s HR Director. I emailed back asking what had happened since the last contact, the one which instructed me not to worry.” He was told, “They’d prefer to speak on the phone, which I saw, rightly, as a massive red flag.”
He attended the conciliation conference, having not really read Prior’s complaint, or even thought about a lawyer. “I hoped that if I told them it wasn’t me, that QUT had been told it wasn’t me, Prior would realise it was a weak claim, I obviously didn’t have the kind of money she was claiming and felt her real claim was against QUT.”
The conciliation failed and the case progressed to the Federal Circuit Court.
“I attended the first directions hearing in December 2015 by myself. I hadn’t been able to access any legal aid or community legal advice, so I had to self-represent. I thought, at that time, how unprepared I was, how much damage could be caused and I was wholly not able to handle it.”
The first time Calum realised his case was before the AHRC was when he received an email on 28 July 2015, informing him of the conciliation conference on 3 August 2015, giving him less than seven business days to prepare, his defence. It was an indication of QUT’s lack of pastoral care for a student facing allegations of racial vilification, from a statutory body that could take litigation to the Federal Court.
In Maryborough Calum’s mum, caring for her own mother, was, at the peak of media interest in the case, started desperately to Google Calum Thwaites, QUT and 18C, trying to work out what was happening. Calum received a letter offering a settlement for $5000 paid to Prior. He declined. “I didn’t have $5000. I’m not from a well-off family, that was a lot of money. I hadn’t done anything, so why should I pay someone $5000. I had told QUT and Ms Prior’s lawyers that it wasn’t me who commented.”
The stress changed him as a person and ended a relationship. “I couldn’t do anything without it [the litigation] being the main thing I was thinking about. It would end up being the thing I would talk about with friends and family.” He began to experience serious migraines as the hearing began in March 2016. The stress peeled seven kilograms off him and sprinkled grey through his 25-year-old head of hair. He started to give up his dreams of teaching.
“I had planned to teach. I was a fair chunk through my education degree and would be graduating this year if this hadn’t happened. In February 2016 I made the decision to switch courses when the media picked up the story. If I Googled ‘Calum Thwaites’ it brought up articles on racial vilification. I knew I’d have a hard time no matter where I went to teach.”
He took leave of absence from his education degree and withdrew completely in 2016.
“I started studying Law full time at QUT midway through 2016 and really enjoy it. If there’s one good thing that has come out of this case, it’s that I’ve found a career I am incredibly passionate about. I’m also working four days a week for Tony Morris QC and I’m not sure I could go back to anything else now.”
“Last November I was incredibly happy it was over but in March after the leave to appeal was dismissed it wasn’t a victory. I was exhausted just glad I didn’t have to fight for my reputation anymore.”
The Indigenous Students computer lab case ran from 28 May 2013 to 3 March 2017 when the Extension of Time and Leave to Appeal was dismissed with costs awarded against Cindy Prior, including the 27 May 2014 complaint lodged with the AHRC; the 27 July 2015 notification by QUT of the complaint, the 3 August 2015 Conciliation Conference; the 20 October 2015 case lodged in the Federal Circuit Court and the 7 December 2015 First Directions Hearing.
On 11 March 2016 Judge Michael Jarrett summarily dismissed the case against Alex Wood, Calum Thwaites and Jackson Powell. Judgment summarily dismissing the case against the three students was handed down on 4 November 2016.
In 2017 full-page advertisements proclaiming Queensland University’s dedication to the futures of endangered animals appeared in national media.
It may be more appropriate for universities to consider the futures of endangered students on campus.
Calum Thwaites is speaking in Sydney this weekend at the 2017 Australian Libertarian Society Friedman Conference.
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