A Catholic university in Western Australia is refusing to allow students to form organisations that take progressive stances on social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and women’s rights.

Notre Dame Fremantle student Alex Kemp applied to start an on-campus Socialist Alternative student club in March, only to be told five weeks later that the proposed club was being denied affiliation because it would support same-sex marriage.

“They outright said that we wouldn’t be allowed on-campus because of same-sex marriage straight off the bat. There was no right of appeal – we just got completely shut down by the people at the top,” Kemp said.

The university’s decision to deny the club affiliation bans it from any on-campus activities and denies it funding routinely given to clubs that meet the university’s acceptance criteria.

Kemp claimed at least three other student clubs have been denied affiliation since July 2012, including a women’s liberation group, a student Amnesty International club and an on-campus branch of the Socialist Alliance.

Kemp and other students were twice forced to leave university grounds by campus security when they tried to distribute leaflets and collect petition signatures promoting same-sex marriage, and university management called city rangers to move the students on once they moved their activities to an off-campus location nearby.

“They call themselves the ‘free speech university’, but they’ve been doing their utmost to shut down discussion of LGBTI rights on campus. It was only when we started getting media attention from local TV and newspapers that they backed off and gave us a de facto right to talk to students at all,” Kemp said.

In a letter sent to all Fremantle Notre Dame students on April 19, Vice-Chancellor Celia Hammond said that “a particular club, organisation or group should not be formally affiliated with the University” if “to do so would be inconsistent with or compromise the University’s Catholic identity and mission”.

Tensions between students and university management boiled over last week as students and activists picketed the Fremantle campus to protest against anti-gay legal scholar and professor John Finnis, who was invited onto campus by Notre Dame management to give a series of lectures titled “Opposing ‘death with dignity’” and “’Same sex marriage’: faith or reason?”.

The University of Notre Dame defended inviting Finnis to speak, saying he was “internationally recognised as a highly distinguished academic,” but declined to comment further.

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