Holland handed reduced sentence by Septemviri
The University appeals court, the Septemviri, ruled on Friday that the sentence of Owen Holland, the PhD student who was rusticated for two and a half years for his role in a demonstration against David Willetts, be reduced to one term.
Early on Friday morning protesters assembled at Great St. Mary’s Church to ‘demonstrate our solidarity with Owen’. The protest was convened after a motion was passed at the last CUSU council, in support of the Reinstate Owen Holland Campaign.
In a press release in response to the ruling by the Septemviri, the Campaign stated that “The Septemviri…has ruled against an appeal to quash a sentence of suspension against Owen Holland”.
It went on to say: “The University decided to reduce the sentence from 7 terms to 1 term, though acknowledged that Owen Holland has already effectively spent most of the year under the weight of the previous ruling.”
Dr Priyamvada Gopal, lecturer in English told the Campaign: “While this is a welcome rejection of the absurd and unjust initial sentence of 2.5 years, it is a great shame that the university did not choose to uphold the right to protest that ought to be a fundamental to its ethos.
“The time has come to reform its antiquated and byzantine judicial procedures towards greater accountability.”
Speaking to The Cambridge Student on behalf of the Reinstate Owen Holland Campaign, 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.”
For the Campaign, said Yaqoob, the reduction in Holland’s sentence “does not indicate a functioning system, and for Owen to have had to face this degree of uncertainty about the future of his studies and career for several months is outrageous.”
Yaqoob signalled the “failings” of the Court, citing “the dubiousness of the Court of Discipline’s fitness to try such a case, and the decision to single out Owen, despite abundant evidence that the protest was collective, and the demands of other participants to be punished also.”
“Owen’s experience points to a worrying willingness in parts of the university to victimise and prioritise deterrence over and above other considerations of justice, and to a hardening of the university’s attitude towards freedom of speech and action in protest. The reduction of his sentence is welcome, but not enough.”
In the Campaign’s press release, other students underlined the severe nature of the sentence and the contradiction in terms of the University’s first core value, “freedom of thought and expression” (the other is “freedom from discrimination”).
Caitlin Doherty, a graduating student commented that “the University has a commitment to protecting the right to protest that must not be infringed in defence of a bogus concept of a government minster’s freedom of speech.”
She added: “we’ll be exercising our rights in the autumn and continuing to protest against this outrageous sentence.”
Graduate student Asa Odin Ekman described the punishment as “needless” and “absurdly draconian”, labelling the Septemviri a “sham”.
The David Willetts lecture was held on 11 November 2011, and the Minister for Universities and Science was to speak on the theme of ‘The Idea of the University’. The Minister was disrupted by an unknown number of protestors from Cambridge Defend Education, of which Owen Holland formed part.
On 22 March 2012, Holland was sentenced to a suspension of seven terms by the University Court of Discipline, though the original punishment demanded by the University Advocate was one term. The sentence was then upheld by the Septemviri, the University’s appeal court.
The Reinstate Owen Holland Campaign was created by staff, students, the University and College Union and the Cambridge University Graduate Union in response to the University’s original ruling. It has received wide coverage in the national media and amongst the student body, via motions, demonstrations, and petitions.
Morgan Wild, Education Officer for Cambridge University Students’ Union commented: “That this student’s sentence has fluctuated wildly from the absurdly disproportionate seven terms to one term just further demonstrates the archaic arbitrariness of the University’s current disciplinary procedures – CUSU is calling on the University to engage in a comprehensive review so a situation like this can never arise again.”
Laurence Tidy – Co-Editor-in-Chief
Photo – Devon Buchanan