Demonstration outside the appeal – June 22

Demonstration in solidarity with Owen Holland next Friday (22 June). Bring banners, bring friends, bring yourselves! Supporters from outside Cambridge especially welcome. Please share widely!

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GREAT ST. MARY’S. 9.30am June 22 – we will be marching promptly to the venue of the appeal, the University Centre (near Mill Pond at the end of Mill Lane)
http://www.facebook.com/events/235921013194481/235942106525705

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!

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Campaign meeting: Thursday 14 June 1pm, GU lounge

We are now stepping up the campaign ahead of Owen’s appeal which has been set for June 22nd. Join us to discuss the next step! We are meeting on Thursday June 14th at 1pm in the Grad Union lounge (map and directions). We’ll be planning a demo, a campaign video, more stalls across campus and much much more…

If you can’t make it, make sure to join our mailing list to stay in the loop, and have a look at the What you can do page to see how else you can take part in the campaign.

Launch of photo campaign ahead of appeal

A date has now been set for Owen Holland’s appeal. He will be appearing in front of the special court for appeals, the Septemviri, on June 22nd. Ahead of this we are launching a photo campaign to remind students, staff and the broader public of the deep injustice that was done by the Court of Discipline in finding him guilty. The rustication of Owen Holland raises issues not just about the freedom of discussion, dissent and protest within the University, but also about its flawed and arcane disciplinary system. This photo campaign sends a clear message to the University: Reinstate Owen Holland.

 Join us by taking a picture of your own! Post it on Facebook and send it to reinstateowenholland@gmail.com to appear on the website

Click here to see the photos people have had taken so far.

Unappealing justice: the flawed and arcane Court of Discipline

Cambridge student Angus MacDonald reminds us of how inappropriate the decision to try Owen was, given the dubiousness of the University’s disciplinary procedures. Owen’s appeal is likely to be heard later this month. Republished from Varsity (www.varsity.co.uk/comment/4767)

Student discipline is, for the most part, dealt with inside the colleges. Party til midnight, get busted by the grouchy night porter, an email from the Lay Dean, and you end up with a £30 fine. A headache and a thirty quid tumor on your college bill – poor you. But, surprisingly the University has an array of apparatus for dealing with discipline outside of the colleges. This includes four individual courts, real-life judges, plenty of gowns, and a latin lexicon to boot. These disciplinary mechanisms rarely grind into gear, and when they do, it’s usually to dole out punishment for cheating or plagiarism. A student going in front of the court for taking part in a protest, such as Owen Holland, is extremely unusual. Owen’s punishment, regardless of its absurdity, was a product of a University Court that has barely any experience in dealing with anything other than slapping students on the wrist for sneaking a calculator into their exam or copying and pasting Wikipedia.

The University has four separate courts: The Court of Appeal, a University Tribunal to deal with staff, and two courts for delinquent students: the Summary Court and The Court of Discipline. The Appeal Court is a council of seven called the Septemviri. It’s made up of big dogs from various colleges, and a fair few Lords and Dames. The Septemviri hear appeals on disciplinary measures taken by the more senior University Courts, and it’s to them that Owen has appealed his sentence.

There’s the Summary Court and the University Tribunal. The Tribunal is a body of discipline exclusively for academic staff. Due to the immaculate behavior of Cambridge’s upper echelons, it rarely meets at all. The Summary Court deals with smaller disciplinary issues outside of a college’s jurisdiction. So maybe you did what we all dream of and sneaked into the UL’s nether regions, and, finding your way to the top of the tower, ran some gloriously witty message up the flagpole. This could be a case for the Summary Courts. They only have the power to fine, or to ban from University facilities. I reckon they’d slap a fine on you and ban you from the UL for a term or two (almost worth it…). Their disciplinary power is limited, so in finding people guilty they only need to prove you ‘probably’ did what you’re accused of.

Now if you’re a student in front of the Court of Discipline, things are serious. They have at their disposal the power to rusticate (suspend), deprive a student of their University membership, or send down completely (expulsion). The potential severity of their rulings means they try to act like a real criminal court. A genuine judge currently chairs the Court, and the guilt of any defendant must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. While the Court claims to emulate the adversarial set-up of genuine criminal courts, this idealistic aspiration has no basis in the court’s actual conduct

The Court of Discipline’s ability to carry out any semblance of a fair trial is unconvincing. First, there’s a woefully inadequate separation of powers: the panel of five University officials are both judge and jury. Worse than that, they can – and have been known to – enter into the adversarial process on the side of the prosecution. This makes them prosecutor, judge, and jury all in one. What’s more, the court deals almost exclusively with plagiarism and cheating in exams. It meets rarely and when it does, the defendant, having been caught red handed, is brought in, pleads guilty, and the Court gives them an uncontroversial punishment. No big deal. No one cares. There’s no need for lofty principles like justice, reasonable doubt, and even-handedness. For example, in the academic year 2010-11, the Court didn’t meet once. This year, they’ve met three times (excluding Owen’s case.) That was for one case of cheating, and two cases of plagiarism. On one occasion a student was caught in an exam about to cheat. The court gave him zero for that exam – no big deal. Another was found to have plagiarised some written work in an exam. He was put in front of the Court and made to do the exam again – pretty lenient. The final case was a plagiarising MPhil student. They were suspended until a University psychiatrist determined them fit to return to their studies – a bit weird, but alright. Each time, the student’s guilt is a given, the Court just picks a punishment.

Owen Holland took his defence into an environment that had no experience of listening to and weighing up a defence. He was charged with orchestrating the Willetts protest, for being so integral that it wouldn’t have happened without him. Any participant of the protest could testify that this is transparently untrue. Yet Owen was advised ‘not to irritate’ the Court, that by playing ball he’d get off with a fine. Thus the Court’s quasi-judicial aspirations don’t even extend to the first priority of English Courts of Law, where the ‘overriding objective’ of a court’s rules is to ensure ‘cases be dealt with justly’. Instead, Owen was tried for six hours in a closed In Camera trial, the records of which the University has yet to release. He was tried in a court that strongly presumed guilt and whose mechanisms for dealing with an adversarial case were rusty. A court that had little experience of, commitment to, or safeguards for genuine justice was faced with a case that required exactly these balances. Unsurprisingly, the Court produced a flawed verdict to match the flawed implementation of its quasi-judicial mechanisms.

Open Meeting tomorrow (Friday 1 June)

We’re having an open meeting tomorrow (Friday 1 June), 1pm in the Lounge of the Graduate Union  (17 Mill Lane) to discuss the next steps in the campaign.

With Owen’s appeal likely to be decided upon over the next month or so, we need to keep up the momentum. Join us!

Poetic Injustice – 7.30pm tonight

Tonight we’re hosting an evening of poetry and music at the Graduate Union (17 Mill Lane) to raise awareness of Owen’s sentencing. Some of Cambridge’s finest poets – student and otherwise, will be reading their work. There’ll also be music and a cheap bar. Entry is free, open to all, and the venue is disabled accessible.

Come along!

http://www.facebook.com/events/391067787598328

Poets confirmed:
Ryan Dobran
Caitlin Doherty
Rowan Evans
Tristram Fane-Saunders
David Grundy
Ian Heames
James McKnight
Luke McMullan
Sophie Seita
Georgia Wagstaff

Ian Patterson on Owen’s punishment

Ian Patterson is a Fellow in the Faculty of English and is Owen’s second supervisor.

Last November, the higher education minister, David Willetts, came to Cambridge to deliver a talk, in a series about ‘the idea of the university’ organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. But as he came to the lectern, a number of audience members (both students and academics) stood up and read, or performed, collectively, a poem articulating opposition to the policies he was advocating. They continued to read and repeat the poem until after a few minutes Willetts was ushered away and the lecture and question and answer session cancelled.

In the aftermath of this, and of the small occupation of the lecture theatre that followed it, one PhD student was singled out for reprisal by the university authorities, and made subject to the university’s disciplinary procedures. As earlymodernjohn asks in an eloquent blogpost today: ‘What is this singling out and rash punishing of one man other than scapegoating?’ And as he goes on to point out it is, actually, more: ‘It’s bullying.’

The scapegoating was widely felt to be unfair, and a letter signed by sixty dons and students advertising their own actual or implicit part in the protest was drafted and sent. This had no effect on the proceedings, and the hearing went ahead. Like everyone else, I expected that the student, Owen Holland, would be fined. The prosecution asked for a term’s suspension, or ‘rustication’. But a sense of outrage and disbelief unparalleled in my experience spread through the university today as it became known that the court had imposed a sentence of seven terms rustication which, as earlymodernjohn points out, is almost the whole period of PhD study.

I have to declare an interest at this point, as I’m Owen Holland’s second supervisor, and want very much to read the work he is currently doing and which this sentence is cruelly designed to abort. But my anger, like everyone’s, is directed not only at the absurd and destructive disproportion of the sentence, but at the way it uses bureaucratic authority to punish effective dissent. As earlymodernjohn says:

In representing Cambridge, the Court of Discipline hasn’t just misunderstood protest, or free speech: it’s forgotten what a university is supposed to be. For shame.

Milton and Dryden were both rusticated from Cambridge, it’s true, for quarrelling with college authorities, and Swinburne from Oxford for speaking in support of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon III, but I don’t think anyone has previously been punished in this way for reading a poem.

(Originally posted on the LRB blog on March 15)