The Bursar of the Cambridge Union Society (CUS) was today handed a massive cheque – for the total of £0.00. The cheque, which sported the name of the 'Bank of Moral Bankruptcy' and was signed "Fuck off!", came from Conrad Landin and Jessica O’Driscoll-Breen, who were fined by the Union on Monday for displaying a similar "obscene" banner.
They were responding to the Union’s decision to fine them £20 for unfurling a banner saying “Fuck off Willetts” in protest at the visit last month of the Conservative MP and Minister for Universities and Science.
This earlier incident took place on Friday 7 March, and was concurrent with a protest against tuition fees and cuts to higher education which was being staged outside by student activist group Cambrige Defend Eduction (CDE).
Although some in the debating hall cheered the actions of Landin and O'Driscoll-Breen, they were ejected by Cambridge Union Society security.
In response, the CUS opened a Presidential investigation, accusing the pair to “be in breach” of the constitution by “disrupting” the event and displaying an “obscene” banner. The debating society gave Mr Landin and Ms O’Driscoll-Breen almost a month to appeal the charge, but they declined to. On Tuesay 8 April, CUS President Michael Dunn Goekijian found the two members guilty of the charge, and fined them £20 each as a result. Members of the society can be fined up to £150, according to the constitution.
Justifying the Union’s actions, Head of Press Oliver Mosley said that: “Protests of the kind displayed by Mr Landin and Ms O’Driscoll-Breen are disruptive for the vast majority of Union members, and only necessitate costly security presences at future events. They thus must be discouraged in the strongest sense.”
In response, at 1.30 pm today, Landin and O'Driscoll-Breen handed over an oversized cheque to pay the Cambridge Union Society "sod all!" instead. Addressing a small crowd of gathered protesters, they said: “We did not stop anyone from attending the talk; we were making our own free expression – it was completely silent”.
They did not appeal because they “did not want to engage in any sort of process from the Union”, which they accused of “crushing the free speech of their members” and helping Willetts to “perpetuate the illusion that government ministers listen to students”.
Landin and O'Driscoll-Breen added that “David Willetts wants there to be an illusion that he listens to students; he's implementing an ideological agenda and by facilitating talks like this the union helps government ministers."
A message on the CDE facebook page echoed this message: “Giving a platform to privileged government ministers and shutting down dissent is NOT free speech”.
The Union refused to comment on Conrad and Jessica’s stunt today, but did wish to point out that there was a vacation school taking place inside, which was disrupted by their protest.
The banner, and the Union’s response, has had a mixed reaction from the student body. First year HSPS student Tom Wilson said he sympathised with the pair and “disliked what Willets is doing”, but conceded that “if it’s in the rulebook, the decision is hard to argue with”.
This is not the first time the CUS has been required to deal with the aftermath of protests at events involving divisive government figures. On 31 May 2011, the Society faced criticism after a 15 year old girl was physically manhandled by security as she was forcibly ejected from the building. She was part of a group of protesters who had tried to disrupt the Conservative MP and Minister Eric Pickles’s visit to the Union.
Nor is it the first time David Willetts has attracted controversial actions from the CDE. A previous visit from Willetts to the university, on 22 November 2011, ended in chaos as students, led by Owen Holland, occupied the Lady Mitchell Hall on Sidgwick Site and prevented Willetts from speaking.
Update: In a press release on Thursday 10 April, the Union has announced: "It is the judgement of the President that Mr Conrad Landin and Ms Jessica O’Driscoll-Breen be suspended from the Cambridge Union Society at 5pm on Saturday, 12th April 2014. This suspension will last until payment of fines owed."