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Dark days for the right to protest on campus

United Kingdom

The right to protest. It’s everything. Often overlooked by a society that owes many of its values to it – dissent is democracy.

But because protest is so powerful, because the weight of people standing together can change policies, change attitudes, even change governments, it is constantly under attack. For example, we’ve recently seen energy company EDF threaten to sue activists from the group No Dash For Gas for £5 million ($7.5 million) after an occupation at one of their gas-fired power plants.

But in the UK and Ireland, the right to protest is also being threatened in more benign surroundings than at the top of a gas power plant. It is being threatened in one of the few public spaces where free thought is meant to be encouraged – our universities and colleges.

taking part in the protest in Belfast
Protesting fees in Belfast Jeremy Bennett

In February, University College Dublin (UCD) threatened three students with possible expulsion for throwing an egg at Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, when he visited to open a building in November 2012. The throwing of an egg (which incidentally, missed Kenny) was a protest against massive cuts to public services. The police merely cautioned the students, but UCD handed down a heavy fine after a long, drawn-out disciplinary process. In most universities it seems to be the political edge to the incident that attracts such heavy-handed action. If the egg had been thrown while the students were drunk at a party, would it have mattered to anyone?

Meanwhile, the University of Sussex has just obtained an injunction banning protests on their campus to stop the ongoing student occupation against privatization. This just a few weeks after dog handlers were deployed at the site in response to the occupation. In December 2011, the University of Birmingham went to the High Court and obtained a similar blanket ban on protests. Amnesty International even stepped in to condemn it. The University of Sheffield and Royal Holloway University of London have considered similar injunctions. Two students from the University of East Anglia went through a stressful disciplinary process for taking part in an anti-tax avoidance protest.

This crackdown on protest by university authorities is widespread – I have experienced it myself. While I was Vice President of Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union in 2011, pro-Palestinian activists peacefully disrupted a lecture by Solon Solomon, a former adviser to the Israeli Knesset (parliament), when he claimed that Israel was ‘exempt’ from the Geneva Convention. In the ensuing confusion, Solomon left the building and the taxi he was in was jeered at and its windows allegedly slapped. In response to what was a fairly low-key protest, the University then embarked on a disciplinary process that dragged on for months.

Three students were arbitrarily singled out from among the 20 protest participants. While defending the students, I witnessed appalling external pressure being brought to bear. Letters from people with blatant ties to the pro-Israel lobby were actually used in the disciplinary process as evidence of the ‘reputational damage’ the University had suffered. The international press reported on the incident, although it was largely ignored by the domestic press. Rightwing media portrayed the peaceful protest as a ‘violent’ one. An article from Israel Today unsubtly equated the students to the IRA. This too, was used as evidence. In a bungling University report – which was later leaked – a student’s confidential medical details were carelessly exposed and a witness to the incident branded the protesters ‘probably Catholics’, an ugly slur which marred the disciplinary procedure further. Two of the students were let off, but the other was landed with a substantial fine.

Disciplinary processes often take place despite no laws having been broken. The students are subject to the particular institution’s own code of laws and subjective ‘justice’. When many students enter their universities, they are unwittingly signing up to be bound by these codes of conduct. The quasi-judicial, make-it-up-as-you-go-along disciplinary processes of our university authorities ought to be stopped, or at least regulated.

What makes this so concerning is that universities are typically where many find out what they really believe in. History is full of leaders and campaigners who found their world-changing politics at university. They are often the birthplaces of movements. It was the students of China who stood bravely against tanks and bullets in Tiananmen Square in 1989, for their as-yet-unfulfilled dream of a free and democratic society. Students helped build the US Civil Rights Movement, opposed the Vietnam War and were involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

With the challenges of our times – austerity, the global dominance of corporate power, runaway climate change – being more pressing than the challenges of the past, what of the future if universities clip the wings of our budding world-changers and throw them off their courses for little more than challenging the world as it is?

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