Outrage! Students and Academics react in horror to shock Cambridge Ruling on Student Protest

Judith Welikala, Co-Editor 15 March 2012

Students, dons, NUS President Liam Burns and Cambridge MP, Julian Huppert have all spoken to TCS today and roundly condemned the University’s seven term rustication of student Owen Holland.

Holland, who is reading for a PHD in English, was yesterday suspended from the University for a period of two and a half years for his part in the protest staged against David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, at Lady Mitchell Hall last term.

The Cambridge Student understands that Holland (pictured above at the protest) has been found guilty of “recklessly or intentionally impeding free speech within the Precincts of the University” by the University Court of Discipline. The hearing lasted six hours. The sentence is seven times greater than the recommendation by the University Proctor, to rusticate Holland for one term.

A march on Old Schools, organised by Cambridge University Students’ Union is set to take place from 1pm tomorrow, “to show the University that students will come out to defend the right to protest, and speak out against unjust sentencing of dissent”.

This comes in the wake of two petitions in opposition to the sentencing are currently being circulated, which have collectively amassed over 3600 signatures at the time of going to print.

The first petition, “Stop the This Is Not Justice: Stop the Sentence” was launched by CUSU yesterday, calling on the “Septemvirii (the appeal court) to quash the extreme sentence”.

The petition states: “We believe, irrespective of individual opinions on the action itself, that this exemplary and punitive sentence undermines the University’s professed commitment to freedom of speech and the right to protest”, adding: “We call for the suspended student to be reinstated.”

While CUSU denounced the disruption of Willetts’ speech at the time, CUSU President Gerard Tully has since said that: “This is in no sense a fair application of justice, and students and academics expect better from Cambridge.”

Within 24 hours of going live, the petition has attracted almost 1300 signatures.

As the CUSU petition is only available to members of the University, a second petition – ‘Support suspended Cambridge University Student!’ – open to any individual, has so far gained almost 2300 signatures.

One of the signees, Claire Lister said it is: “Absolutely disgraceful to see a student being victimised in this way”.

Duncan Crowe, an alumnus of the University, commented: “The extent of the disruption may warrant reprimand but the punishment as delivered is disproportionate and risks damaging the reputation of the university.”

Another signee, who identified himself as Edward Bauer, Vice President (Education) for the University of Birmingham Guild of Students, urged: “I hope everyone reading this and signing this understands we need to do more than just sign this petition, we need large demos to restore the right read poetry at visiting government minsters.”

Second year University of Birmingham student Simon Furse was called to a misconduct committee hearing on Wednesday 15 February, and currently faces disciplinary action due to his participation in a student occupation last November.

As well as Holland’s punishment being seen as greatly disproportionate to his actions, the University Court of Discipline has also come under fire for singling out an individual student over a collective protest.

Last week, a ‘Spartacus letter’ was signed by more than 60 staff and student members of the University, which asked for the same charge leveled against Holland to be brought against them.

One of the signatories of the letter, Chris Page, a third year English Student at Sidney Sussex, and CUSU/GU Welfare & Rights Officer-elect said: “Regardless of whether or not you supported the actions taken against David Willets last term, the decision to suspend a single student activist for 2 1/2 years is utterly ridiculous.”

Page condemned the “totally unprecedented” nature of the punishment, noting that the last time the University Court dismissed a student was for the plagiarism of a thesis, and that in the past ten years the greatest punishment for a protest had been a £100 fine.

“The action was peaceful and absolutely non-violent – the student in question read a poem. What the University has done in this case is a political act – the sentence is a political attack on freedom to protest.

He urged: “The appeal court must quash this ludicrous sentence.”

Dr Isobel Urquart, a Bye-Fellow at Homerton College, who also signed the letter said: “Not only is it a deeply unjust punishment meted out to Owen Holland himself, it is a shocking act of intimidation intended to deter others from even daring to think about protesting.”

She implored every student to sign the CUSU petition “because every single student is being sent the message that, should *they* ever dare to take part in a protest while at Cambridge University, they could also be similarly victimised and severely punished.”

60 academics signed a letter addressed to Vice-Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz “to express grave concern that one individual is being singled out for disciplinary action when a great many members of the University, both junior and senior, were involved.”

The letter continued: “By choosing to proceed in this way, the University has embarked on a course of action which could reasonably be supposed to intimidate this individual, and which therefore represents a failure of the University’s moral duty to them.”

The letter was initially sent privately to Sir Leszek on 21st February, but was later produced in on the Cambridge Defend Education website, after no reply was given by his office.

Professor Simon Jarvis, who signed the letter, has since said that: “Heckling government ministers is an important British tradition, and happens most weeks in the House of Commons. This pretend court and those who sit on it have brought their University into disrepute. Cambridge is acquiring a reputation as a place which likes to flatter the rich and powerful, and to silence any dissent amongst its own students.”

His sentiments were echoed by Dr Mete Atature who said he was: “quite worried that our university is comfortable with the idea of destroying the academic career of one of its students for reciting a poem.

“The sheer length of this sentence suggests that those responsible for this outrageous decision have fallen deep into the trap of enforcing obedience through victimization and heavy-handed punishment. However, this authoritarian approach, typically taken by those detached from the dynamics of a fluent and vibrant society, has routinely failed in the long run. I expect no different in this case.”

Professor John Kinsella, who also signed the letter said: “I wish to state clearly and unequivocally that the punishment of Owen Holland is a disgrace.”

He added: “It is a desperate act to single out one person and attribute ‘blame’, and looks like an embodiment of institutional fear. To ‘divide and conquer’ is a militaristic reaction to what was and remains a peaceful protest. The Minister has constant rights of expression and is in a position to control his utterances in so many ways – his being ‘talked down’ at the event was one of the few ways students have to counter his privilege of media access and voice their protest.”

Cambridge University Conservative Assoctaion (CUCA) were contacted by TCS for comment, but no reply was received. Cambridge Universities Labour Club (CULC) opposed the disruption of Willetts’ speech, but actively supported the Occupation that followed. CULC Chair Martha Morley has condemned the University’s handling of the incident as “completely disproportionate and a travesty for the right to protest.

“At a time when the Coalition government is threatening students from all angles, it is deeply worrying to see such over-the-top, heavy-handed sentences being handed down to students by their own university. CULC supports CUSU’s petition and demonstration tomorrow.”

Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, has also spoken exclusively to TCS against the extremity of the sentence, despite disagreeing with Holland’s means of protest: “Free speech is an important principle, and by preventing a guest from being able to speak, Mr Holland was in clear violation of that principle. Free speech does not only apply to those you agree with.

“However, I was surprised by the length of the punishment. I believe Mr Holland has the right to appeal it, and am sure that he will do so.”

The National Union of Students has also come out against what it deems as the “excessive suspension” of a student protester. Liam Burns, NUS President, speaking to TCS prior to the issue of the official NUS press release said: “Peaceful protest is fundamental to any democratic nation and when no laws are broken there is no reason for such a disproportionate punishment.

“I’m sure Mr Willetts himself would agree that universities should be encouraging the voicing of critical opinions rather than attempting to silence them. The government’s changes to higher education have been profound and no-one should be surprised that students will take issue with them.

“It’s clear that this decision does not reflect the wishes of the student body and has unfairly singled out an individual to make an example of.

“This outrageous sentence should be immediately reversed and the university should make it clear that it will not punish such peaceful protest in the future.”

Judith Welikala, Co-Editor