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Protest is being crushed by a culture of examples

A Cambridge lecturer posted on a social networking website on Wednesday that she “now works at Kafka University: please alter your address books accordingly.”

The same day, a “university court” sentenced PhD student Owen Holland to a seven term “rustication”: in short, he cannot return to the university until Autumn 2014. His crime? Playing a leading role in poetically heckling the universities minister David Willetts when he came to address an audience on “the idea of the university”. This was delivered via “the people’s mike” – each line was exclaimed, and then echoed by other audience members.

Or, as the university authorities put it, Holland “impeded freedom of speech”.

Freedom of speech is a concept notoriously hard to pin down, which makes it all the more ridiculous that it has been used as the primary charge in this case. Speaking at the occupation of the Lady Mitchell Hall in December, which was set up immediately following the anti-Willetts action, Cambridge philosophy professor Raymond Guess argued that even in the liberal definition of the term – most appropriate for critics of the action – David Willetts would not be eligible:

For liberals, freedom of speech is about enriching the debate in the public sphere. Therefore, giving freedom of speech to a government minister is completely pointless.”

But for anyone who still maintains opposition to the action on the grounds of free speech, the suspension of Holland for seven terms is surely even more of a disgrace.

For if this judgment is maintained, the implications will reach far beyond Cambridge. The punishment is the first of its kind in the current wave of student activism – where a legal action has resulted in any suspension, let alone one of two and a half years.

In all the shock of this week, when poetry became a greater offence than the dismantling of our university system, or, dare I say it, the exploitation of women in an academic study, there was similarly-disturbing news from London.

Nine protestors were found ‘guilty’ of ‘aggravated trespass’ at Fortnum and Masons on March 26, when they entered the West End shop and peacefully occupied.

Once again, severe judgments for a spurious charge that would, but for circumstance, press coverage and embarrassment to the powers-that-be, be forgotten about.

We have seen a worrying trend of establishment institutions making examples of high-profile cases, scaring future protestors from taking action at all.

Not even common sense and the bleeding obvious can overcome this example culture. For anyone who takes fifteen minutes to watch the poetic ambush of David Willetts will see that it could not be described in any way as an individual action. Different people play different roles, but it was evidently planned collectively and could not have been successful without the multiple voices in the hall and support from a wider group of students and academics, some of whom were not present.

Yet the university has decided to ignore the “Spartacus letter” signed by over sixty lecturers and students (myself included), taking collective responsibility. Yet the case against victimisation is far stronger than in the 1960 film. For while most of our readers would recognise the collective nature of the action in Kubrick’s epic, a liberal observer might insist that there was one unquestionable leader of the rebellion: Kirk Douglas’s character.

Authorities have sometimes genuinely failed to understand the concept of collective action in the organisation of protests. But when it is on public display like this, it is hard not to be suspicious that an institution of self-indulgent mantras of “free speech” is actually seeking to impede that of future generations.

The Cambridge occupation of December, which I am proud to have been a member of, sparked a wave of sit-ins up and down the country. Don’t be surprised if university authorities elsewhere take their lead from Cambridge too. This judgment could be the death-knell of the current wave of campus activism.

Yet in the coming days, it offers another opportunity: to stand up in outrage at the savage hypocrisy of the university I am ashamed to be a member of. If this judgment was reversed as a result of activism, that really would be victory.

Sign the petition against the university’s penalty here.

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