EXCLUSIVE: “The University v Mr Owen Holland” – Cambridge University Court document leaked to TCS

16 April 2012

The Cambridge Student can exclusively reveal details of the full clandestine legal proceedings undertaken by the University against Owen Holland, which last month resulted in the PhD student’s suspension from the University for seven terms for his involvement in a protest against Universities Minister David Willetts in November last year.

TCS today received an anonymously leaked copy of what we believe to be the “Record of Proceedings and Reasoned Decision” in the case of “The University v Mr Owen Holland” – a document produced by the University Court of Discipline which records a detailed summary of the legal proceedings, evidence provided, testimonies given and Court deliberations in the case of the University’s prosecution of Owen Holland for interrupting a lecture by David Willetts at Lady Mitchell Hall (LMH) in Michaelmas term. Aside from the verdict and sentence, most of the details of the case, which has generated coverage in national and international media and provoked outrage among students and academics for the harshness of the sentence, have remained highly secret. After careful consideration, TCS believes that there is a prevailing public interest in publishing the content of what we believe, to the best of our knowledge, to be a true and accurate copy of this document.

The document contains some concerning and surprising revelations. Students and staff will doubtless be concerned to learn that, in one passage, the document suggests that most of Holland’s key testimony was rejected by the Court in favour of that provided by the University officials present, citing Holland’s apparent untrustworthiness. The document describes how “where his evidence was in conflict with that of the Senior Proctor and Professor Goldhill the Court rejected his evidence and accepted theirs”.

On 22 November last year, as Willetts arrived at the lectern in the LMH to commence a lecture on “The Idea of the University”, 30 students from activist group Cambridge Defend Education (CDE) prevented him from speaking by chanting a poetic 25-minute letter, or ‘epistle’, entitled “Go home, David”, via ‘call and response’ led by Owen Holland, a PhD student in English at St Catharine’s College. 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 Cambridge Defend Education activists.

‘In camera’

The leaked document reveals that a formal complaint was made against Holland on 7 December by the University Senior Proctor Dr Alan Winter, and his deputy, to the University Advocate Dr Rosy Thornton, a Fellow in Law at Emmanuel College. The Proctors “are responsible for maintaining good order and discipline in the University”, while the University Advocate “conducts prosecutions before the University Courts for breaches of discipline…by members of the University”. Thornton formally charged Holland on 22 December 2011 in a letter to the University Registrary for having “intentionally or recklessly impeded freedom of speech… within the Precincts of the University” under Regulation 2 of the University’s General Regulations for Discipline. Outlining the particulars of the offence, Thornton wrote: “Mr Holland impeded freedom of speech in that he caused or significantly contributed to the disruption of a lecture… by leading a pre-planned chanted protest, which was liable to prevent, and which had the effect of preventing, the lecture from taking place.”

A preliminary hearing was held in camera (in private) in the University Centre on Mill Lane on 14 February this year, presided over by the Chairman of the Court of Discipline Colin Colston QC. Owen Holland, represented by Dr Catherine MacKenzie, a University Lecturer in Law and a fellow at Selwyn College and accompanied by Gorley Putt Professor of Poetry and Poetics Simon Jarvis who was deputising for Holland’s Tutor, entered a Not Guilty plea.

Holland’s ‘trial’ took place on 14 March before the full 5-member University Court of Discipline, with Holland again represented by Dr MacKenzie and accompanied by Dr Paul Hartle and Dr Philip Oliver, respectively Senior Tutor and Graduate Tutor at his college, St Catharine’s.

“A legitimate exercise of his right to protest”?

TCS can reveal that the Court was shown two videos of the protest, one submitted by the University Advocate (the prosecution) and one by Dr Mackenzie, Holland’s representative; in addition, they were shown two still photographs of the protest submitted by the University Advocate, along with a full copy of the text of CDE’s epistle. The first witness called by the prosecution was the Senior Proctor Dr Alan Winter, who had made the complaint against Holland. Winter explained that “he had not sought to intervene to stop the delivery of the ‘call and response’ epistle by about 30 people in full voice because, in the light of his experience in March 2011 when there had been serious disorder at a lecture on University premises given by Mr Willetts, he was concerned to avoid the possibility of any physical confrontation in the tense atmosphere of a steeply-raked lecture theatre and that furthermore he considered the delivery of the ‘call and response’ epistle to be a ‘tedious interruption'”. The prosecution also submitted a witness statement from Professor Simon Goldhill, Director of the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), who organised Willetts’ lecture, in which the University Advocate drew “particular attention… to the fact that, about 10 minutes after the call and response began, Mr Willetts had said that he thought that he should leave”, according to the leaked document.

Holland was called to give evidence in his own defence by Dr Mackenzie, and was then cross-examined by the University Advocate. In the course of his evidence, the leaked document details how he “acknowledged that he led the ‘call and response’ epistle to David Willetts” and that he “joined in the first ‘Out, Out, Out’ response call to the repeated chant of ‘Willetts, Willetts, Willetts / Out, Out, Out” which started at the end of the epistle. However, Holland also insisted that the epistle “was a document of composite authorship, written over the preceding weekend, to which he had contributed and which he had transcribed” and that “neither the Senior Proctor nor any other University Officer had asked him to desist from the delivery of the ‘call and response’ epistle which he considered to be a legitimate exercise of his right to protest”. Questioned on the florid text of the epistle itself, the document shows that Holland said “it was difficult to say what the phrases ‘We have planted ourselves in your audience’ and ‘We stole in quietly’ mean”.

Closing submissions were made by both the University Advocate Dr Thornton and Holland’s defence representative Dr Mackenzie. The leaked document describes at length the points made by Mackenzie in pleading Holland’s innocence. She pointed out that CDE’s protest, by the Senior Proctor’s own admission, was “no more than a ‘tedious interruption'”, and therefore the action could not be deemed “of sufficient gravity to amount to ‘impede’ free speech”. She went on: “If the defendant had been impeding free speech it was the duty of the Proctors to intervene and they did not do so; it was the occupation of the stage , not the ‘call and response’ chant led by him, which caused Mr Willetts to leave”. Crucially, Mackenzie also noted that “because it was a composite product and simply a literary device (like children chanting ‘Why are we waiting?’) the Court could not pay attention to the words of the ‘Epistle to David Willetts'”.


However, after a break of 20 minutes to consider its finding, the Court found Holland guilty “beyond reasonable doubt on the whole of the evidence presented to it… of intentionally impeding freedom of speech within the Precincts of the University”. The Court then took 2 hours and 20 minutes to consider Holland’s sentence, after Mackenzie had pointed out, in mitigation of sentence, Holland’s “good character and lack of previous convictions, the fact that numerous other individuals were involved in the delivery of the ‘call and response’ epistle, and the fact that, while the Defendant did participate in the response element of the ‘Willetts, Willetts, Willetts / Out, Out, Out’ chant as well as the occupation of the stage, he did not lead either of these”. Mackenzie also said that Holland “was towards the end of the second year of his PhD course and wants to pursue a career in the public service”.

The Court however sentenced Holland to “be rusticated until the start of Michaelmas Full Term 2014”, and ruled that Holland’s “right to use University premises and facilities be suspended until the start of Michaelmas Full Term 2014” and that his “admission to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) (should his candidature for this degree be successful) be postponed until after the end of Easter Full Term 2015”. The Court also rejected Holland’s appeal to remain anonymous in the Notice about the trial outcome to be published in the Reporter, a University publication of record, ruling that “because of the gravity of this particular case and the circumstances in which freedom of speech had been impeded it was in the interest of the University and the public” that Holland’s name be published in the Reporter.

“A witness of truth”?

The final part of the leaked Court document details the reasons given by the Court of Discipline both for the finding of guilt, and the specific sentence chosen. The Court had apparently “considered the respective credibility of the Senior Proctor and the Defendant” and found that while the Senior Proctor was “a witness of truth”, Holland was “evasive and lacking in both credibility and frankness in relation to parts of his evidence, for example, when seeking to explain the meaning of some of the wording in the epistle”. Therefore, the document describes how “where his evidence was in conflict with that of the Senior Proctor and Professor Goldhill the Court rejected his evidence and accepted theirs”.

The document details how the Court found Holland’s guilt proved “beyond reasonable doubt” since Holland “was involved in the composition of the ‘call and response’ epistle to Mr Willetts and transcribed it into typescript”, was “the ringleader in the delivery of the ‘call and response’ epistle to Mr Willetts”, and “joined in the first ‘Out, Out, Out’ response call in the chant of ‘Willetts, Willetts, Willetts / Out, Out, Out'” once the epistle was finished, as well as having “joined the occupation of the stage once that occupation was established”.

On the subject of Holland’s sentence, the document describes how the Court felt that since Holland “had chosen to contest the charge… was not entitled to the discount on sentence which would have been available to him had he pleaded guilty”. The Court also apparently noted that “no expression of remorse, apology or acceptance of the gravity of his conduct had been forthcoming”. The Court described Holland as “a sophisticated young man whose actions were intentional and deliberate throughout” and “the ringleader in the ‘Epistle to David Willetts’ protest”, which the Court decided “could not properly be regarded as nothing more than a tedious interruption”, given the “frightening and tense atmosphere in the Lady Mitchell Hall”.

The document also seems to confirm what many students and staff opposed to the length of Holland’s sentence feel is the University making an example of Holland, in order to deter future such action. According to the ‘Reasons for the Sentence’ given by the Court, they felt that “the sentence should be such as to punish the Defendant; but, by not bringing his academic career in Cambridge to a permanent end, to allow his rehabilitation; and also play a part in deterring others who might be tempted to act in similar way”.


An outspoken critic of the University’s harsh sentencing of Holland, Bruce Beckles of the University Computing Service, commented in a personal capacity: “Having been asked to comment on the revelations in TCS’ article, what most obviously jumps out at me is just how difficult it is to see how the Court could reasonably find Mr Holland guilty of impeding free speech. Not only does the Court claim to accept the Senior Proctor’s evidence, which includes the opinion that Mr Holland’s actions were merely a ‘tedious interruption’, but its own findings indicate that Mr Holland did not lead either the chanting that followed the poem or the occupation of the stage.

“In particular, if there is any part of the protest that could be said to have prevented Mr Willetts from speaking it is the occupation of the stage, which the Court found that Mr Holland not only did not lead, but only joined after it had been already established. So for the Court to have found Mr Holland guilty suggests that either its members were confused about the concept of “reasonable doubt” or were unable to reason correctly about causation, or both.

“It would also appear that the sentence imposed by the Court is, as many have suspected, intended to be both punitive and exemplary, and it is not clear how the sentence could be seen as rehabilitative, as the Court claims, given that the Court not only rusticated Mr Holland, but also deprived him of the use of all University facilities. By what mechanism does the Court expect any rehabilitation to occur?

“Finally, I continue to be perplexed by the University’s refusal to make the reasons for the sentence known more widely, particularly given that the Court denied Mr Holland’s request for anonymity, and that the Council has scheduled a Discussion on 24 April 2012 of the issues around Mr Holland being charged and sentenced.”

Holland has until tomorrow to commence an appeal to the Septemviri, the University’s Appeal court, though it is understood that Holland has already done so. Owen Holland’s sentence has sparked much anger among students and academics, with a CUSU petition calling for Holland’s reinstatement having so far amassed nearly 3000 signatures.

TCS News

More updates and comment to follow.

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