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Universities are the new battleground for free speech

Student protest outside London university

Debate should be encouraged on campus, not violently quashed. Occupy.com under a Creative Commons Licence

Almost three years to the day after the student protests of 2010 – when the BBC’s Ben Bradshaw was seen wearing a flack jacket in Whitehall – students are now back on the streets, making their voices heard. During the past two weeks, police have used excessive force to crack down on students demonstrating outside Senate House. Ironically, this London University building was the inspiration for George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ in his novel 1984.

A month ago the president of the University of London Students’ Union, Michael Chessum, was arrested after arranging a small but vocal protest over the future of the Union. On 4 December students occupying part of Senate House to campaign for better pay and conditions for contracted workers at the University, were violently evicted. A video of the eviction shows punches thrown at protesters by a police officer – just one of many instances of unwarranted violence, witnesses say.

If you, like me, have seen any of the past fortnight’s protests you will know the sense of anger among those on the streets. The day after protesters were evicted from Senate House, over 30 arrests were made at a ‘Cops off Campus’ demonstration at the University of London.

Hundreds of police surrounded protesters and groups of fewer than 10 students were kettled by twice the number of officers. There appeared to be blood on the pavement next to one group and witnesses reported seeing one person having their crutches kicked from under them before being hauled into the back of a riot van.

Universities should be places of learning and debate, where students and academics need not be afraid to air controversial opinions. If the management of a university invites the police in large numbers onto campus with a mandate to use excessive force, this space for discussion is torn apart. Such institutions have a duty to protect property and staff, but for London University to allow a number of its students to be beaten, arrested and then, because of bail conditions, be denied entry to their own campus,  is not part of this duty of care. One journalist who contacted University management after the Senate House evictions was told there had been ‘no violence or criminal damage’ prior to the police being called and ‘no threats of violence to staff’. There was, however, ‘swearing’.

What is it about student protest that illicits such a forceful response? There is little evidence that the police were provoked to act in the way they did. And when you are stuck in a police kettle, there is no option to ‘move along’. As riot vans surrounded the university and a police helicopter droned up above, the obvious question was, ‘are we paying for the past?’ Is the suspicion that greets the free assembly of young people a hangover from the student protests and nationwide riots of 2011?

These issues affect not only London University. Last week the University of Sussex excluded five students for taking part in a sit-in. After a public outcry, the exclusion was reversed pending a disciplinary hearing. If universities want to retain the respect of their students, something has to change.

Freedom of speech and the right to assemble are not idle things that can be thrown away when someone says things you disagree with. If universities wish to serve their students they should engage with debate, not shut it down. As long as their voices are not heard, students will keep going onto the streets and eventually the chanting will be so loud that the suits will have to listen.

Patrick Thompson is a student at University College London and a freelance journalist writing about politics, current affairs and science.

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