Options for dissidents

Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh

Published in Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (editors), Intellectual Suppression: Australian Case Histories, Analysis and Responses (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1986), pp. 243-252.

Options for dissidents - in pdf

Go to

Contents page for the book Intellectual Suppression

Brian Martin's publications on suppression of dissent

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website

What can individuals do to deter and oppose suppression? The previous chapters have given some idea of what suppression looks like in practice and what causes it. In this chapter we give an overview of the available avenues for action against suppression, with comments on their advantages and disadvantages. Because suppression takes many forms, and because the best course of action against it depends on the particular circumstances of each case, we do not wish to suggest a single solution, but rather to outline the options so that individuals and groups are better able to choose a successful defence.


Once action has been taken to block a person's appointment, to prevent teaching of courses, or to institute dismissal, the struggle against suppression is much harder than if such actions had been prevented. As in the case of war, deterrence is better than battle, and removal of the causes is best of all. The most effective time to overcome suppression is before it begins. There are several avenues for helping deter suppression.

Legislative reform

Liaison with politicians who are interested in amending the Acts under which institutions operate can open up possibilities for developing statutes that ensure good procedures and appeals, and achieving access to administrative review by ombudspersons or other independent reviewers.

Better procedures

Grievance committees, appeal procedures, ombudspersons and similar channels, if they provide a known and effective way of addressing cases of discrimination, exploitation and suppression, also provide a deterrent to their occurrence. Therefore it is important to press for better procedures. Often this is only done after particularly blatant cases of suppression expose their inadequacies.

The existence of formal procedures is not always an advantage for dissidents. For example, an institution's representatives may claim "qualified privilege" or even "absolute privilege" on the grounds of the existence of formal procedures within the institution. What are needed are properly codified rules which really guarantee fair treatment. Providing the rules are good, their too flagrant abuse can result in bad publicity for the institution.

Better legal channels

Legal avenues for redress are a special case of formal procedures, often used as a last resort. Legal channels are usually ill-suited for addressing cases of suppression, because of the lack of suitable laws and because of the large expense involved.

Informal response methods

Formal channels often do not deter suppression because the person or group suppressed does not wish to make a major issue of the case. Deterrence would be aided by the existence of well-known informal methods for resolving disputes. For example, individuals or groups might be prepared to act as mediators to attempt to propose solutions and to informally point out proper and improper courses of action to potential suppressors. The availability of such mediators might serve to restrain suppression, especially in cases where people in powerful positions do not realise the ethical implications of their actions.

Channels for publicity

If standard avenues for obtaining publicity for cases of alleged suppression were available, this would serve to deter its occurrence. At the moment obtaining publicity is an uncertain business: newspapers, journals and organisation newsletters may or may not take an interest. If for example a journal or other outlet were available to publish accounts of alleged suppression, this would help deter as well as oppose suppression.

Support networks

For individuals or groups who speak out or take action on controversial topics, having a support network is a good way to help deter suppression. A support network is essentially a collection of people or groups who are aware of and sympathetic with the general concerns or goals of the individual or group in question. The network may be held together by personal contact, newsletters or occasional publicity. For example, John Coulter's support network consisted of both friends and environmentalists who knew of his work. A support network can be mobilised into action when suppression occurs. The known existence of a support network can help deter suppression. For this reason it is important for dissidents to maintain contact with sympathetic people. Sometimes a low profile may serve to help avoid suppression, but once a person or group becomes known as a dissident, publicity may serve to deter suppression, by bolstering and expanding a support network more than it aggravates potential suppressors.

Social reform

If suppression arises from entrenched interest groups, such as chemical companies which try to stop publication of critical comment about their products, suppression may be prevented by reforming the social and political environment. For example, standard procedures may be brought in by governments for testing chemicals and documenting their hazards, or independent institutes set up for evaluating chemicals. Reform here refers to political change which makes it unnecessary for people to become dissidents and risk suppression to expose particular information.

Reforms within intellectual organisations are important. Some possible general long-term reforms which would reduce the power of elites responsible for suppression are as follows:

1. Remove rank and either remove or reduce salary differentials, to reduce power-striving within scientific and academic organisations.

2. Reduce work loads and hire more staff. This should be coupled with a general reduction in both hours worked and total years worked, to provide opportunities for intellectual work by all interested people.

3. Strengthen "freedom of information" at all levels.

4. Reduce asymmetries in decision-making power. For example, positions on committees for job selection, research coordination or administration might be filled by rotation.

Social transformation

Instead of simply testing and publicising the hazards of a chemical, an alternative is to remove the necessity for its use. Often such a change requires changes in social, political and economic structures. To replace much of the unnecessary routine spraying of herbicides might require tight government regulation or alternatively local community control over agricultural practices. To accomplish this would also require reducing the powerful organisational interests behind agricultural chemicals within chemical companies and government agricultural departments. Another example is the removal of the need for nuclear power by promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and redesign of communities to reduce energy requirements. The social transformation to accomplish this would also remove the sources of suppression within the nuclear industry and state bureaucracies.


Suppression cannot always be prevented. Sometimes, in spite of the availability of procedural channels and support networks, individuals or groups find themselves harassed, blocked and attacked. There are quite a few options. Here we outline them, mentioning some advantages and disadvantages.

Acquiesce quietly

Probably in the majority of suppression cases the suppressed individual makes no attempt to challenge the actions taken. Perhaps most commonly this is because the person is not aware of any suitable response, or is afraid of the possible repercussions. Other occasions when suppression is not challenged are when there is not enough overt evidence to mount a formal challenge, when the person does not want to become a focus of attention, and when the person wrongly accepts some of the blame. In some cases silence or a quiet exit may allow an individual's career to continue otherwise uninterrupted. But nonresistance may also allow or even encourage further suppression, such as blacklisting, as in some cases known to us.

The wider consequences of habitual nonresistance to suppression are a reinforcement of acquiescence to the status quo and the discouragement of critical scholarship. Furthermore, the power structures which generated suppression are allowed to continue intact. When indication was given to John Hookey - who among other things had introduced the first Australian course on environmental and resources law - that he would be denied tenure at the Australian National University, he took another job without making a full challenge to the decision. Several years later, attempts were made to deny tenure to Jeremy Evans, who had helped set up the environmental Human Sciences Program, in very similar circumstances.[1]

Use formal procedures

If resistance to suppression is contemplated, the first and most obvious channel is the formal procedures provided, typically by the organisation in which one is employed. For example, various procedures may exist to appeal against a blocked promotion.

Sometimes these so-called "proper channels" may be all that is required to rectify the situation. But this requires that a person have a strong case in a formal sense and that the system rules be respected by all parties. When suppression is initiated from top levels within an employing organisation, formal procedures may provide only a travesty of justice, as in the Orr case.[2] More importantly, in many cases formal procedures do not apply to the circumstances, or do not exist at all, or sufficient documentation may not exist to provide a reasonable case in pursuing them. For example, often there are no channels available to appeal against rejection of a job application. Even if there are appeal channels, there may be no way of showing that the rejection was caused by some form of unjust discrimination.

Nevertheless, even when formal channels are largely irrelevant to the case, it may be wise to pursue them just the same. This is not so much to realise the small chance of success, as to provide a justification for the use of other methods. When taking one's case to staff associations, courts or the media, it is often quite important to be able to say that one has tried the "proper channels" first.

On the other hand, formal channels often serve to defuse issues and obscure the justice of a case. When the formal channels are known to be slow and ineffective, then it may be wise to pursue other channels simultaneously or even exclusively.

One positive wider consequence of using formal procedures - or indeed any open resistance to suppression - is encouragement to others to resist when appropriate. In addition, some improvement in formal procedures may result if they are shown by a challenge to be inadequate. Australian National University tenure review procedures were changed after both the Hookey and Evans cases, though the reasons for the changes can only be inferred. On the negative side, formal channels provide no challenge to the institutional forces behind suppression, such as bureaucratic or corporate elites. In addition, by using them the formal channels, however inadequate, may be legitimised.

When using any methods of overtly opposing suppression, whether this is through formal channels or other methods, it is vitally important to document one's case. When possible, written records should be obtained and kept concerning all aspects of the case; sometimes it is useful to obtain written statements about occurrences from people who have observed what is happening. This is especially important when rumours abound or subtle forms of harassment occur. Without documentation, formal channels are usually entirely useless. And documentation is also vital when obtaining publicity and support from outsiders. (For suggestions on documenting a suppression case, see below under "Write-in campaigns".)

Dissidents under suppression should also keep a diary or "attendance notes" of any interviews, discussions and telephone calls with those holding authority or with those associated with "official" positions. That is important for documentation and for any possible future legal procedures.

A dissident being considered for discipline, or an individual claiming discrimination, may opt or may be required to undergo a quasi-legal hearing administered within the institution. A word of warning is appropriate. Some of the most blatant abuses in universities have involved such quasi-legal hearings. Furthermore, the very existence of such formalised hearings may prejudice access to remedy through the courts.

Thus, if at all possible, insist upon proper formalised procedures. The complaint should be particularised. The exact allegations should be in writing. There should be a written transcript of all testimony and copies of that transcript should be freely available to the dissident. All witnesses should be examined and cross-examined. Whether you are represented by an advocate, perhaps legal counsel, is a difficult problem. The right to be represented should certainly be there.

If an administrator suggests an "informal" hearing, it would be wise to have an exchange of correspondence stating clearly the precise nature of that hearing, its object, its possible consequences and its procedures. If the administrator wishes to have jurors or their equivalent, insist that their selection be done fairly. The right to challenge for cause, to be able to eliminate proposed jurors with conflicts of interest, should be honoured and used when necessary.

Staff associations

As well as formal procedures set up by the employing organisation, another set of formal procedures is often available through trade unions or staff associations. The existence of case histories such as the sample provided in this book shows that there are some weaknesses in many professional organisations, including staff associations and professional unions, in responding to suppression. But in some cases unions and staff associations do take a strong role against suppression. Taking a case to these groups can stimulate them to look at a wider range of problems. Also, even if staff organisations are not willing or able to take formal action, individuals within them may be willing to make deputations, organise publicity or otherwise act on one's behalf.

Many union activists and officials are unsympathetic to non-members who suddenly come to them requesting considerable support and action. If one is an actual or potential dissident, and union support is a potential option, then it is wise to belong and, if one is so inclined, to be active in the union.

In summary, unions and staff associations can provide valuable support in opposing suppression, and this possibility should be carefully considered. But all too often unions and staff associations may be unwilling or unable to take action. Expectations of solutions from this source should not be raised too high.

The law

The legal system is often the final resort in formal challenges to suppression, and use of this system epitomises the positive and negative features of using formal procedures. If one has a strong legal case, just the threat of legal action may serve to induce a favourable settlement. Those who go to court should try to choose their preferred issues, the timing and the point of initiative, rather than letting the institution have primacy in these things. The courts often provide a partially independent locus of power to corporations, governments and universities, and sometimes this power can be used to restrain suppression.

On the other hand, court procedures are usually heavily weighted against the victim of suppression. Unless legal aid can be obtained, legal costs can be financially crippling. Even when this is not a problem, the time and energy required to fight a court case can be exhausting physically and emotionally. By comparison, one's legal opponent, usually an organisation such as a government or corporation, has virtually unlimited financial support for the court case, and individual suppressors risk little.

In addition, the court is seldom a forum for getting at the truth. The court may be only able to rule on whether an alleged dismissal is harsh, unjust or unreasonable, as in the Coulter case,[3] and issues of corporate pressures, harassment, and rumour-mongering are out of bounds. Getting a case into court often diverts or obscures the real issues, and even a successful court case may not provide emotional satisfaction. And like other formal procedures, there is little opportunity for changing the structures which lead to suppression.

Informal procedures

Sometimes suppression results from misunderstanding, lack of communication, cultural clashes or subtle differences in values. One way of overcoming the problem is to try to sort it out informally. The most obvious way is for the suppressed person to talk with the suppressors and help them understand why their actions were wrong or inappropriate. Often, this should be the first thing done. What is apparently a blocked publication may be only an oversight. Sometimes the suppressors may genuinely be surprised and embarrassed on realising what they have done.

Rather than a direct approach by the suppressed person, another possibility is the involvement of a third party who looks at all sides of the issue and talks with everyone concerned. The third party should be someone not obviously identified with the other parties, and someone who is discreet and sensitive to the issues involved. Sometimes formal procedures will require, suggest or allow involvment by such a third party. It is often a good way to overcome problems bound up with personality clashes or with cultural misunderstandings. Anybody taking up informal discussions should first acquire a working knowledge of conciliation and arbitration principles and, as suggested above, should keep "attendance notes".

Informal approaches have the great advantage of avoiding polarisation which often occurs in disputes after formal procedures are taken up or publicity is obtained. But informal approaches have clear limitations. For instance the suppressed person or, more often, the suppressor may refuse to be involved. Sometimes the suppressor is unknown, as when complaints are made to a person's boss without informing the individual complained against. And informal approaches seldom do anything to help remove the source of suppression.

Write-in campaigns

Apart from formal and informal procedures, the other major way to oppose suppression is by mobilising support and applying pressure on decision-makers. There are several ways to do this, and perhaps the most circumspect is the write-in campaign. The basic idea is for supporters or concerned people to write letters to an appropriate body requesting information or expressing concern. In the case of a dismissal, the appropriate body is usually the employer.

Writing letters may seem an innocuous activity, but it is the same method used by Amnesty International in opposing torture around the world, and it is a method used with considerable success. Essentially letters show that certain people are aware of the situation and are concerned about it. The more people that do this, and the more influential or prestigious they are, the more this demonstrates that the prestige of the institution being written to is in jeopardy. Furthermore, letter-writing campaigns are often a prelude to wider forms of publicity.

To initiate a letter-writing campaign, it is necessary to inform the potential letter-writers. At this stage it is important to prepare one's arguments carefully. Mustering evidence and argument for a letter-writing campaign or any form of public pressure is somewhat different from doing it for formal procedures. Emphasis should not so much be on technical violations of statutes and so forth, which are most relevant for formal channels, but on presenting a sound and reasonable argument. The following features are important:


Letter-writing campaigns constitute a form of limited publicity. The next stage up from this is publicity in newsletters, journals, newspapers, radio and television. There is a considerable difference between different media outlets, for example between a staid presentation in an academic journal and an up-beat story in a tabloid newspaper. Coverage should be sought according to how one wishes the campaign to proceed. If one is still pursuing formal channels with some hope of success, sedate treatments in professional journals may be appropriate. If the aim is to apply pressure to entrenched elites, it might be best to pursue mass media treatments. One use of media treatments is to photocopy newspaper clippings and pin them on noticeboards, and to use them to persuade correspondents in write-in campaigns.

In their analysis of responses by journals to submissions about the Coulter case,[4] Brian Martin and Clyde Manwell reach the conclusion that the mass media are often more willing to provide coverage of suppression cases than professional journals. Because mass media coverage often can be obtained without too much difficulty, it is important to only seek this when it is really wanted and needed. As in the case of letter-writing campaigns, it is important to have prepared a documented, clear and concise presentation of the vital features of the case.

Reporters are people too! They need stories; it is part of their job to get them. Some of them may be concerned about suppression and interested in your case. After all, they have probably been suppressed, or seen suppression in action, more times than they can count. You can make life easier for them by providing a clear and considered written or verbal account of your case, and being as courteous to them as you would to anyone else. Remember that unless you have specified that your discussion is "off the record", anything you say to a reporter may appear in print, or on air if you are being recorded. It pays to be honest, open, cautious and completely accurate.

Pressure group action

Another extension of the letter-writing campaign by individuals is action by sympathetic groups. In the Coulter case, trade unions and environmental groups took action to oppose the dismissal. There are many avenues for action. Groups (and individuals too) can write letters to employers, write letters to newspapers, lobby politicians, get questions asked in Parliament, make public statements, hold public meetings, hold demonstrations and organise occupations.

Elite bureaucrats detest public campaigns. Often they have no idea how to handle the situation. Sometimes they are prone to make logistical and decisional errors, which can accumulate to turn the process to the favour of the suppressed as errors are compounded upon errors. The initial response of bureaucrats usually is to ignore publicity and pressure. If this is not effective, then everything will be done to squash the campaign or divert it into formal channels.

Public campaigns have several positive wider consequences: they delegitimise inadequate formal procedures and organisations; they encourage similar action by others, especially by making many people aware that suppression has institutional roots; they can sometimes induce organisational change, or result in imposition of controls from the outside; and they promote solidarity between dissidents and their supporters. On the negative side, public campaigns may result in greater cohesion among vested interests against challenges, depending on how the campaign is run.

Public campaigns often are quite powerful because the majority of the public is in sympathy with the dissident's activities. When a government employee exposes waste or corruption, it is usually only those who think that the actions of those in high places should not be questioned who want this hushed up. Most people will want the waste, corruption or injustice rectified. Public channels tap the basic sympathy for good action and the basic antagonism to abuse of power and privilege. It is often the dissident's strongest base. On the other hand, public sympathy cannot be guaranteed. Sometimes racism, sexism, rumour or systematic counter-publicity may swing sympathy to the suppressor. These possibilities should not be discounted.

As well as the previous suggestions about the preparation of arguments and coordinating campaigns, the involvement of pressure groups raises some delicate issues. Most importantly, dissidents should on no account manipulate, or be seen to manipulate, individuals or groups in order to gain support. For example, it may be that a threatened academic program has potential support from other staff and from students. But if the organiser is, for example, a member of a staff association and a teacher of the students in the program, these positions of formal or de facto power should not be used to induce support. In our opinion, it is quite all right to discuss the situation with individuals or groups, and to suggest courses of action. But often it would be politically unwise to propose a staff association motion to take action to protect one's job, or to convene a meeting of students and outline plans for a student strike. Campaigns are best run by other staff or students, and the threatened individual plays the role of adviser. Not only is this better for the sake of appearances, but more importantly it ensures that the goodwill of supporters is not jeopardised by misuse of their concern, even if the misuse is unwitting.

Manipulation is usually only a problem when dissidents are in formal positions of power in relation to potential supporters. The avoidance of manipulation should not be taken to imply that support cannot be solicited. It can, and should be. People will not take action unless they know about the case and have some ideas of what to do about it. Furthermore, although it is useful to have one's case taken up by a third party, often this is not possible. Do not be hesitant in actively promoting your own case if necessary, by writing letters, putting out press releases and making public speeches.

Unfortunately, many reforms only occur after considerable bad publicity. In several of the cases we have examined, it was only mass student protest that motivated university administrations to reconsider their actions. If the situation at an institution has reached the point where mass protest is required, then it is important that those involved behave with restraint and decency. There is nothing to prevent an unscrupulous administration using the agent provocateur technique to induce violence which is counterproductive for the protesters. When there is a convincing case of injustice, the presence of a large number of nonviolent, firm and courageous protesters can work miracles in restoring, if only temporarily, a sense of fair play into the administrators of intellectual organisations.

Personal resources

At times you may stand alone. You'll need the psychological resources to handle that, and the skills to win support. Don't expect too much initial support from colleagues in the pay of your institution. Once a power bloc begins to get at a dissident, many others may join in against the dissident for a variety of reasons. It is because of the isolation resulting from such unified opposition that many dissidents simply drop out, refuse publicity, resign (even though the charges are false), or even commit suicide. To counteract such isolation, support networks are vital. Support networks thus serve a double role: they provide both moral support and some source of countervailing power.

If you retain your composure and consistency, you may be fortunate enough for the arguments and the balance of power to move eventually in your favour, providing you with more confidence. If things start to go in your favour, the suppressors may begin to disagree among themselves, looking for scapegoats or a "rationalised" rewriting of the case history to make things look better for themselves.


There are many possible methods and courses of action in opposing suppression. How can one decide what to do? One can carefully consider the options, consult friends, and get advice from others with similar experiences. In a major case, it may be useful to use some of the methods of nonviolent action training in designing a strategy meeting.[5] Here is a possible sequence of events.


A few points in this chapter are taken from Brian Martin, "Suppression of dissident experts", Crime and Social Justice, no. 19, Summer 1983, pp. 91-9.

1. Brian Martin, "The scientific straightjacket: the power structure of science and the suppression of environmental scholarship", Ecologist, vol. 11, no. 1, January-February 1981, pp. 33-43.

2. See the chapter by Clyde Manwell and C. M. Ann Baker, "Not Merely Malice".

3. See the chapter: "Mutagens and Managers", on the Coulter case.

4. See the chapter by Brian Martin and Clyde Manwell, "Publicising Suppression".

5. Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser and Christopher Moore, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1981).