“A merciful course” – Details of Owen Holland's appeal revealed

Cambridge students hijack Willetts speech 17 July 2012

Last month, the University Appeal Court reduced the sentence granted to PhD student Owen Holland for his part in a protest last November against Universities Minister David Willetts. The length of his suspension was cut from seven terms to one term. A document released by the University last week has now revealed the details of the Appeal Court’s deliberations.

The five-page report by the Chairman of the Septemviri, the University Appeal Court, set out the reasons for the reduction in sentence. Former Lord Chancellor, the Rt. Hon. Lord Irvine of Lairg QC, Chairman of the Septemviri, wrote: “We accept that Mr Holland’s ambition is to become an academic and that his prospects may well be good. A seven-term suspension could well in practice bring that ambition to an end: he has no independent financial means.”

He went on: “Mr Holland has had a seven-term suspension hanging over his head since the Court of Discipline announced its decision in March. Inevitably this must have caused him the pain of contemplating that his life ambitions might for all practical purposes be over.”

However, the Septemviri were at pains to point out the ‘one-off’ nature of their generosity: “We have therefore decided, but in this case only,to follow a merciful course.”

The Septemviri therefore reduced Holland’s sentence from seven term’s ‘rustication’ (or suspension) to one term on 22 June. This still means however that Holland, currently studying for a PhD in English at St Catharine’s College, will be unable to use the University’s premises and facilities, and will no longer officially be deemed a student of Cambridge University, for the duration of Michaelmas Term 2012, returning to the University at the start of 2013.

The Septemviri (translated from the Latin as ‘seven men’) is the University’s Appeal Court, and is made up of the Chairman and six other members, including Sir Richard Dearlove, Master of Pembroke College and former head of the secret intelligence service MI6.

“Brought his current misfortune on himself”

The majority of the Chairman’s report sets out in detail how the Septemviri upheld the original verdict of ‘guilty’ on the charge that Holland “had intentionally or recklessly impeded freedom of speech within the precincts of the University”.

The charge relates to an incident on 22 November last year, when Universities Minister David Willetts was prevented from starting a lecture on “The Idea of the University” in Lady Mitchell Hall on the Sidgwick Site by around 30 students from activist group Cambridge Defend Education (CDE). As Willetts arrived at the lectern, the protesters began chanting a 25-minute poetic letter, or ‘epistle’, entitled “Go home, David”, via call and response led by Owen Holland. After the chant finished, a group of around 20 protesters proceeded to occupy the stage. Upon this, Willetts left without giving his lecture, and the event was cancelled. The protest was followed by a week-long occupation of Lady Mitchell Hall by CDE activists.

Following a complaint to the University Advocate (who “conducts prosecutions before the University Courts for breaches of discipline…by members of the University”) by the Senior Proctor in December, Holland was found guilty by the University’s Court of Discipline on 20 March this year and suspended for seven terms. The verdict, and particularly the severity of the sentence, sparked outrage and protests from students and staff, with a Reinstate Owen Holland campaign begun to support Holland through his appeal. A CUSU petition calling for Holland’s reinstatement amassed nearly 3000 signatures.

Holland’s appeal seems to have been based on the tenet that “freedom of expression is a fundamental right” as per Article 10(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Though the Septemviri recognised this, they emphasised that “under Article 10(2), this right is not absolute”. Article 10(2) provides that the exercise of freedom of expression is subject to restrictions “necessary in a democratic society for the protection of… the rights of others”.

Published in the latest issue of the University Reporter, a University publication of record, Lord Irvine’s report cited as correct the assertion of University Advocate Dr Rosy Thornton (in effect, the ‘prosecution’) that “Mr Holland has many indeed lawful and legitimate ways in which he can express himself and exercise his right to freedom of expression, but those ways do not include ways which impede the human rights and freedom of expression of another person within the precincts of the University”.

Viewing this as the “nub” of the case, the Septemviri dismissed Holland’s appeal against the finding of guilt by the Court of Discipline.

Lord Irvine also pointed out that the charge against Holland was “of ‘impeding’ not ‘preventing’ freedom of speech”. The Septemviri therefore agreed with the Court of Discipline in rejecting Holland’s defence that “it was the occupation of the platform , not the chant, which led to the abandonment of the lecture”. According to Lord Irvine, “by the terms of the charge, the University did not assume any burden of proving Mr Holland’s conduct was the cause, or the effective cause, of Mr Willett’s abandonment of the lecture. In upholding the decision of the Court of Discipline, we have had regard only to this leading of the chant and the statements in the epistle .”

“Holland’s conduct does not call for a deterrent sentence”

In parts, the report sounds sympathetic to Holland, who was represented by Michael Beloff QC of London barristers, Blackstone Chambers. In one part, it agrees with Holland’s submissions that “Mr Willetts, as a professional politician carrying forward controversial policies, must have broad shoulders when faced with protest at a public meeting, not least within a University affected by his policies”. It later mentions how the Septemviri “recognise the hotness of feelings generated by the issues that Mr Willetts proposed to address”.

The report describes the six character references submitted on Owen Holland’s behalf as “strong and persuasive testimonials”, and disagreed with the Court of Discipline in its assertion that Holland’s sentence should “play a part in deterring others who might be tempted to act in a similar way in the future”. The Septemviri instead maintained: “Mr Holland’s conduct does not call for a deterrent sentence”.

However, the report also emphasised, “It does not follow that in any future case we will necessarily take that generous view” – and it included the damning assessment that Holland had “brought his current misfortune on himself”.

Supporters of Holland, while pleased with the shortened sentence, felt that last month’s Septemviri ruling did not go far enough. Speaking to The Cambridge Student on behalf of the Reinstate Owen Holland campaign last month, Waseem Yaqoob said, “While we welcome the reduction in Owen’s sentence, we feel that the wider failure of the University to overturn the sentence is deeply disappointing and worrying.”

Michael Yoganayagam, Associate News Editor

Photo: Devon Buchanan

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