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Rabelais Defence Campaign


Over two days in mid-August, 1995, four editors of Rabelais, the newspaper of the LaTrobe University Students' Representative Council were arrested by Victoria Police and questioned over publishing an objectionable article. The pursuant charges centred on a satirical article entitled "The Art of Shoplifting". Echoing Proudhon's claim that "property is theft", the article implicitly problematised the criminalisation of shoplifting. The article positions corporations as entities which, through the practice of chain-store retailing routinely exploit customers and workers and create poverty by encouraging the maintenance of an 'army of reserve unemployed labour' which is thereby largely excluded from shopping at their stores. The article presents this critique from a Neo-Marxist perspective which positions the poor university student who is tempted to shoplift, not as a potential criminal but rather as a potential anti-capitalist activist. The arrests were the catalyst for a five year political and legal campaign in defence of the editors by a range of student, political, advocacy groups and unions. This culminated in the editors seeking leave from the High Court of Australia to appeal a decision of the full bench of the Federal Court. The leave was not granted. However, the charges were eventually dropped by the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions in 1999. The Rabelais campaign raised important questions regarding the use of censorship law to stifle political dissent.


In 1994, the Victorian Liberal Government under Premier Jeff Kennett, introduced "Voluntary Student Unionism" legislation which prohibited the use of student fees to fund a range of activities organised by student associations, including student newspapers. Unhappy with the dominance of radical politics at universities, the Australian Liberal Students' Federation had been agitating for such a plan for many years but had been unable to convince students to vote for it in referendums. That year, the liberal students and their partners from the ALP (Australian Labor Party) right were ousted from the LaTrobe University Students' Representative Council (SRC) by a group elected on a broad-left ticket which included students from the International Socialist Organisation, Left Alliance, Resistance and the ALP left. An aligned group were elected as editors of the SRC newspaper, Rabelais. This group, who were later to become the focus of the censorship campaign, included at least two members of Left Alliance - Ben Ross and Melita Berndt. Prior to the election, the editors promised to present a paper which was "extreme" and several provocative articles were duly published. "The Art of Shoplifting", an edited version of an article published in a Sydney anarchist zine, "Destroyer 267" (Fleming) appeared in the July edition.

Amidst the public debate on the role - and funding - of student-run organisations, and public debate on the shoplifting article, in August, 1995, the Labor Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Crean, wrote to the Victorian Attorney-General, Jan Wade, advising her of a provision within the Film and Literature classification laws which could be used to prosecute the Rabelais editors.(Clayton, cited in Lobez) Whilst this intervention was central to the case, the arrests emerged from the interactions of a range of actors and institutions including shock-jocks John Laws (Sydney) Neil Mitchell (Melbourne); the Victorian Retail Traders Association (VRTA); and Rupert Murdoch's Melbourne Tabloid, the Herald-Sun; spokespersons from Victoria Police; and manouverings of the Victorian Liberal and Labor parties over the funding of the "political" activities of university students. At the request of the VRTA, the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) acted promptly and refused classification of the article, without informing the editors. The students were then arrested - within a week of Crean's letter being written.

The Rabelais Defence Campaign was then established and was supported by a range of groups including many university student unions, left-wing political organisations and unions. As part of the campaign, other organisations - including many Australian student-union papers - re- published the article. However, the Rabelais editors were the only ones to ever be charged. The editors appealed the classification to the Federal Court which heard the case on 21 May, 1997. A rally was held outside the federal court whilst the case was being heard, and included speakers from the National Union of Students, Victorian Trades Hall Council, and the Victorian Council of Civil liberties. The court dismissed the appeal. The editors took the case to the full bench of the Federal Court and again the appeal was dismissed on 6 June, 1997. As part of the campaign the anti-censorship group, Electronic Frontiers Australia, made an application to the OFLC to ban publication of the judgment of the Federal Court which included a full transcript of the article, but it was refused. Eventually, the High Court of Australia refused an application by the editors for leave to appeal the Federal Court's decision. The charges were dropped on 24 March, 1999 without explanation.



  • Lawrence, Carmen; with thanks to Joshua the destroyer, The Art of Shoplifting, Rabelais, Ben Ross, Michael Brown, Melita Rogowsky, Valentina Srpcanska, vol. 29, LaTrobe University Students' Representative Council, Melbourne, July, 4 pp. images PDF Details

Government documents


  • Ross, Ben; Brown, Michael; Rogowsky, Melita; Srpcanska, Valentina (ed.), Rabelais, Selected articles, vol. 29, no. 6, LaTrobe University Students' Representative Council, July, 29 pp. PDF Details

Newspaper Articles

  • Frontline: Labour Movement and Community Monthly, 'Right to Protest Under Threat', Frontline: Labour Movement and Community Monthly, no. 40, November-December, 1996, p. 1. images PDF Details



  • The Political Censorship of Newspapers and the Intimidation and Repression of Student Editors: Background Information, Student Unionism Network Defence Committee, 1996. PDF Details


Online Resources