Reinstate Owen Holland is a campaign launched by staff and students at Cambridge University, the UCU and the Cambridge University Graduate Union (GU) against the decision made by the University of Cambridge to pursue and sentence a single student for a peaceful collective protest. The heavy-handed and disproportionate punishment of seven terms’ suspension has caused great anger among the student body, academics and the wider public.
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On 22 November 2011, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, was scheduled to speak at the University of Cambridge. The event was part of a seminar series on ‘The Idea of the University’ hosted by CRASSH. But the talk never went ahead as planned, as it was disrupted by a peaceful protest by students attending the event. An unknown number of individuals used a call-and-response method to read a poem, criticizing the reform of Higher Education in Britain. After around 10 minutes the Minister himself decided to leave the premises and thereby end the event.
The University’s reaction was to single out one participant, Owen Holland, who was tried in camera in the University Court of Discipline on March 14th. He was found guilty on the charge of ‘impeding the freedom of speech’, and sentenced to seven terms’ suspension, or ‘rustication’. The punishment was seven times larger than the one term that had originally been demanded by the University Advocate. An appeal has been lodged.
STUDENTS AND ACADEMICS SPEAK UP
The student body immediately reacted to the news of the sentence. CUSU and the GU started an online petition signed by 3000 university members as well as 5500 members of the broader public. A well-attended demonstration was arranged, and shortly after, a silent protest took place in conjunction with the inauguration of the new Chancellor. A number of JCRs, MCRs and the GU Council passed motions opposing the sentence and expressing their support for Owen’s appeal.
A large number of academics within the University have also come out to express their opposition to the victimization of a single student, and on 24 April called a Discussion at the Senate House to discuss the matter (transcript in the Reporter; audio recording available to University members). The participating academics overwhelmingly expressed their objection to the victimization of a single student. Several speakers noted that the singling out and punishment of one individual for a collective action is an arbitrary way of dispensing justice. Although 74 individuals have admitted their participation in the action, charges have not been brought against any of them.
Indeed, leaked documents from the trial suggest that the Court’s primary motive in setting the sentence was that it should “play a part in deterring others who might be tempted to act in a similar way”. This heavy-handed response to the peaceful protest raises important questions about the room for dissent and diversity of opinion within the University. At the Discussion, Dr Priyamvada Gopal remarked that “Every single one of us – academics, staff, and students – must be concerned about what this spells for our own current and future right to speak up and draw attention to historic injustices and to singular wrongdoing.”
The trial was further tainted by a number of procedural shortcomings. The defendant’s requests for anonymity and to be accompanied at the hearing by a representative from the Students’ Union were both denied. The evidence supporting the charge of the impediment of the freedom of speech was weak, as the Senior Proctor and event organizers were the only witnesses called against the defendant. The very meaning of ‘freedom of speech’ in the context of the trial remains ambiguous. Several academics at the Discussion questioned the professed independence of the Court.
The severity of the sentence is entirely unprecedented. In the public petition against the sentence, Tariq Ali comments “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. More recently, in 2009, a Cambridge University event with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was disrupted by a student throwing a shoe at the speaker. No disciplinary action was sought by the University against the protester.