Owen Holland’s appeal before Cambridge University’s special appeals court, the Septemviri, took place earlier today. The original seven-term suspension was reduced to a single term, effective until January 2013. Protesters gathered outside to show their support for Owen, and sat in to listen to the hearing.
The University’s failure to overturn the sentence leaves staff and students deeply disappointed. The Septemviri justified the reduction of the sentence with a desire to be ‘merciful’, while adding menacingly that they may not be so generous in the future. There should be no punishment at all for peaceful political protest, and the precedent set by Owen’s suspension is a very real threat to the freedom of expression within the University.
Nonetheless, the fact that the University has been pressured into moderating the sentence shows the power of protest and solidarity. Our message to the University is that the fight is not over. We will continue to defend the right to protest and to fight for free education. This attempt to intimidate and silence students will not succeed.
Owen’s appeal begins at 10am tomorrow. Join us at 9.30am outside Great St. Mary’s Church to march to the University Centre, where we will silently show our solidarity with him outside the appeal. Supporters from outside Cambridge especially welcome. Bring banners, bring friends, bring yourselves!
GREAT ST. MARY’S, CAMBRIDGE - 9.30am June 22
Last term, a PhD student, Owen Holland, was rusticated for 2 and ½ years for his role in a peaceful demonstration against David Willets in November 2011. This exemplary sentence caused outrage among students and academics. Owen will be appealing before the Septemviri (University Appeals Court) in the University Centre (near Mill Pond) on FRIDAY 22ND JUNE at 10am.
At the last CUSU council, a motion was passed backing a demonstration against Owen’s sentence in the event of his appeal, and supporting the Reinstate Owen Holland Campaign, which is also backed by GU, Cambridge UCU and NUS. We are calling for as many people as possible to assemble at Great St. Mary’s Church at 9.30am to demonstrate our solidarity with Owen.
Why you should come along:
1. We believe that it is fundamentally wrong to single out one student for what was clearly the actions of many. A “Spartacus letter” signed by junior and senior members of the University and submitted to the University Advocate, shows that if there is any culpability for the disruption, it should not, and must not, be placed on the shoulders of one individual (http://tinyurl.com/cdkwvzg).
2. That this sentence amounts to an attack on the freedom to protest. Whilst opinions of the original action vary greatly among students and staff, we believe that it is possible to oppose this decision without endorsing the actions taken in November 2011. By setting a precedent of two and a half years rustication for any act the University deems to have impinged freedom of speech, this sentence sends a simple message – that if an individual steps out of line, the University has the power to ruin their career.
3 .Over 3,000 students signed a CUSU petition (http://tinyurl.com/d4j7v9r) calling for the charges to be dropped. A further online Petition (http://tinyurl.com/bwkbfot) condemning the sentence has gathered over 5,500 signatures, including those of Liam Burns (NUS President), John McDonnell (Labour MP), Michael Mansfield QC, Professor Terry Eagleton, the author Tariq Ali, and many other notable and respected figures.
Bring banners, bring friends, bring yourselves!
Following on from the earlier post, here are some more comments by staff and academics on Owen’s case. Taken from the April 24th Discussion at Senate House. Full transcript available here.
The sentence imposed in this case ‘by the University’ has made us all responsible; all of us by default share in the ridicule, opprobrium, or indeed approval which it has occasioned.
those of us with a particular interest in admissions, access, and widening participation simply have to grit our teeth, as the task of explaining to prospective students, and their parents, that Cambridge isn’t completely arcane and out of touch just got a little bit harder.
- Dr H. M. M. Lees-Jeffries (Faculty Of English and St Catharine’s College)
I wish simply to register my grave concern that at a time when universities and higher education have been under unprecedented attack, both academic freedom and the right to protest also appear to be in such danger at our institution. While we honour these fundamental rights and freedoms in name, the singling out of a lone student protester in a collective action for quite extraordinarily disproportionate and harsh punishment gives the lie to our protestations.
- Dr P. Gopal (Faculty Of English And Churchill College)
I was hampered by the University’s refusal to provide me with any details of the Court of Discipline’s reasoned decision. Fortunately for me, less so for the student concerned, it appears that some kind member of the University administration or the Court has leaked a signed copy of this document to various student newspapers, one of which seems to have helpfully made it available verbatim on the Internet.
- Mr M. B. Beckles (University Computing Service)
Even if one adopts the most narrowly legalistic approach to this sentence, there seem to be at least two ways in which it is inappropriate:
First, there is an issue of fairness. One student, and one only, is being singled out and scapegoated. He is being punished for something many other people also did, and even more people, like me, approved of.
Second, there is the issue of the proportionality of the punishment to the action. No one has claimed that anyone was harmed or even that any property was damaged during the events in question. Whatever one might think of the action, it was a reasoned response to what many of us feel is a concerted attack by the government on the higher education system. Suspension seems a disproportionate reaction and one motivated by vindictiveness or loss of face rather than anything else.
- Professor R. Geuss (Faculty Of Philosophy)
With Owen’s appeal taking place tomorrow, its worth remembering how wide condemnation of the sentence – and the decision to take him to trial in the first place – is among staff and academics. One example was the calling of a Discussion at Senate-House on Tuesday 24 April by thirty-seven Regents – members of the University’s governing body. Here is a small selection of their criticisms. We’ll put more up later. A transcript of the entire session is available here.
I believe the punishment is utterly disproportionate to the crime, for indeed, there was no crime. At worst, there was a minor violation of some University regulation, which I would offset against the way that the voices of young people have not been listened to in the fees debate. Young people do not want the forthcoming fees, and the weight of that opinion is not properly reflected in the government’s documentation, nor even in the weightings of our democratic procedures which naturally exclude the young.
what appalls me is this. How can anybody inflate such a minor matter as the events of that evening by invoking the hallowed concept of ‘freedom of speech’ in the way that it has been done?
“There is no Article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says that a Minister of State has the right to give an evening lecture without being interrupted”
- Mr F. A. Mcrobie (Department Of Engineering And St Edmund’s College)
At a time when the critical function of the academy is facing an unprecedented threat from government policies that cast all education as training, and all research as business entrepreneurship, it is dismaying to discover that this kind of disciplinarian narrow-mindedness lies somewhere near the core of the University.
- Dr J. E. Scott-Warren (Faculty Of English and Gonville and Caius College)
Again, bad administrative practice has related to an action which had sought to protest government policy
- Dr B. K. Etherington (Churchill College)
I have a particularly acute awareness of just how promising an academic career this savagely disproportionate sentence is calculated to wreck…Seven Oxford undergraduates (including myself) were rusticated for the last two weeks of Michaelmas Term in 1964 for ‘violently protesting’ the visit of the South African Ambassador. That was bad enough. This is an outrage!
When we look at the sentence before us – a sentence of seven terms’ rustication imposed on a single student, for taking part in a collective, non-violent political protest – it is painfully clear that the difference between Cambridge in the twenty-first century and Oxford in the last millennium is not in Cambridge’s favour.
- Dr C. J. Gonda (Faculty Of English And St Catharine’s College)
We’ve received a huge number of messages from individuals and organisations across the country expressing solidarity with Owen for his appeal on Friday. We’ve published a few of them below. Please feel free to add your support in the comments below, and thank you for your continued support!
“What has happened to Owen Holland is an outrage. It is a long fought for right of citizens to protest, and it is a key element of vigorous debate and a condition for a vibrant democracy, particularly in a university setting, for members of communities to be able to voice their opposition to policy, both Governmental and institutional. That is what is under attack here in the interests of representing and repackaging the University as a site passive in the face of, and thereby complicit in, Government education policy.”
- Tom Hickey, Chair, UCU Coordinating Committee, University of Brighton, National Executive Committee, UCU
“As an alumnus of the University (Emmanuel, 1988), I am shocked by the decision of the Court of Discipline in the case of Mr Owen Holland. He appears to have been singled out for victimisation after his part in a civilised protest against the visit of the current Minister of Education. The punishment imposed upon him is out of all proportion to the offence. The Cambridge I remember and respect did not engage in exemplary punishment of individuals and in the name of natural justice I would most strongly urge the Appeals Court to overturn this appalling decision.”
“I am registering my support for Owen Holland, who does not deserve to be singled out in this way, nor should anyone be punished for a civilised, peaceful protest with others against a government minister who appears to have a limited view of what higher education is. Surely the purpose of education is to question the world in which we live?”
“From myself, and from all of the academic staff at Fircroft College of Adult Education in Birmingham, we fully support your action, and fully support your right to take action.”
“This is outrageous! Whatever happened to speaking truth to power? And peacefully as well! I hope the University see the error of their ways.”
“I have followed this case with incredulity and disgust… The disciplinary action for a peaceful expression of opposition was inappropriate in the first place… This is unworthy of an institution that should recognise that students are entitled to hold their own views and indeed to be angered by the betrayal of a generation of students.”
“Support from the Chair of Warwickshire College. Good luck.”
“I wish you every luck with your appeal. Justice, I trust, will out.”
“Like hundreds of academics throughout the country we were shocked by the severity of the suspension handed out to you by the Cambridge authorities and offer our wholehearted support for you during tomorrow’s hearing”
- Jill and Peter Seddon, Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton
Yesterday (Sunday 17 June), aka ‘Suicide Sunday’, the campaign to reinstate Owen – complete with musicians and banners – took to the River Cam to spread the message.
Come show solidarity with Owen at the demo outside his appeal this Friday (22 June)! http://www.facebook.com/events/235921013194481