Student activist Barry York in the 1970s.

“If there is to be a limit on protest, a pandemic with the potential for causing exponential growth in infections is the most obvious example I can think of,” he said.

“People should have the right to protest, but if they are going to turn up in large numbers, a lot of them without masks and the hell with everyone else who might get infected, then they have foregone that right, in my opinion.”

Mr York, now semi-retired in Canberra, has long taken seriously the right to protest.

In 1972, he was expelled from La Trobe University and sent to Pentridge jail for his activism.

With the 50th anniversary of what are known as the Waterdale Road marches approaching, he was flooded with memories of what he says was an early victory for the right to exercise free speech.

On September 11, 1970, he and 70 other students set off to march down Waterdale Road, West Heidelberg, to hand out leaflets in support of an upcoming anti-Vietnam War moratorium in Melbourne’s CBD.

Police arrest another protester.

They were met by police who beat some of the students and chased the rest back to the university.

“We held a meeting at the university and said we can’t cop this – we had to assert our right to march.”

A second march was arranged for September 16.

About 200 students assembled at the Northland shopping centre, intending to walk back down Waterdale Road to the university.

They arranged for independent observers, including the university chaplain, Dr Ian Parsons and a senior academic, Dr Alan Ward, to record the event, and members of the media turned up.

They reported plainclothes police from the Special Branch and numerous uniformed officers attacked the marchers with batons, boots and fists.

Some 19 marchers were arrested, at least two of them at gunpoint, numerous protesters were injured and a young woman suffered a broken arm.

“I was shaking with fear, but I retrieved a megaphone and tried to hold things together,” Mr York said.

The third Waterdale Road protest march was fairly peaceful.

Famously, a tough police inspector with the unlikely name of Keith Plattfuss – German for “flatfoot” – was quoted by a newspaper as saying of the students: “They got some baton today and they’ll get a lot more in the future.”

A third demonstration on September 23 drew about 800 marchers, including unionists.

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Two busloads of uniformed police, two carloads of Special Branch officers and floats of police horses arrived, but this time – apparently wary of the size of the crowd and of negative media reports – they did not break any heads.

Mr York recalled a Maoist quote to underscore his belief that the Waterdale Road marchers had won a victory over the authorities: “Reactionaries lift a rock only to drop it on their foot”.

But that victory, said the old campaigner, did not necessarily extend rights to those who could expose the community to infection in a once-in-a-century pandemic.

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