Even in the wake of recent criticism of the University of California’s use of violence to break up nonviolent demonstrations, one fact has gone largely unquestioned — that student occupations are unlawful, and may be properly ended by police.
Across the Atlantic in Britain, however, the opposite belief prevails. There, student occupations are considered lawful unless a court specifically rules otherwise, and an attempt by one university to declare all occupations presumptively unlawful is meeting with growing criticism.
One of the biggest universities in the UK has obtained a high court injunction that criminalises all occupation-style protests on its 250-acre campus for the next 12 months, the Guardian has learned.
After a recent small-scale occupation of an abandoned campus building and a series of protests against rising fees which have resulted in student suspensions and sanctions, University of Birmingham lawyers went to the regional division of the high court two weeks ago and won an order banning “occupational protest action” upon “persons unknown” without prior permission.
The court order has caused outrage among students including the president of the National Union of Students who called for the injunction to be immediately abandoned. …
The terms of the injunction say: “The defendants shall not, without the prior written consent of the claimant, [Birmingham University] enter or remain upon land comprising the claimant’s campus and buildings at the University of Birmingham … for the purpose of any occupational protest action.”
Tessa Gregory, a solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers who is acting on behalf on Birmingham students challenging the claim, described the university authority’s actions as shameful and draconian. …
“The injunction obtained is extremely wide in its application – it prevents persons entering the university for “the purpose of any occupational protest action”, it covers the entire 250 acres of campus and it will endure for 12 months.
“Students staging a sit-down protest in a field on campus may therefore find themselves in breach of the injunction. This is wholly disproportionate and ripe for challenge. It is a shameful attempt by the university to prevent students from exercising their lawful right to protest.” …
The president of the National Union of Students, Liam Burns, said: “Turning to the courts to stop occupations is using a hammer to crack a nut. There are legitimate conversations to be had about how best to facilitate peaceful protests and occupations … However, universities need to remember that their campuses are places to develop citizens, not silence dissent.
“The idea that students should seek permission for protest action somewhat misses the point of an occupation action. The university should immediately drop this injunction and enter into a genuine dialogue with students rather than slapping an injunction across campus for a full year without even consulting their students’ union.” …
A committee member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Ed Bauer, who is currently suspended from his post as Birmingham student Guild education officer because of his anti-cuts protests, said: “Universities are meant to be bastions of free speech and debate and a safe space for all ideas to be raised. The idea that you should ban all protest on campus for 12 months is absolutely ludicrous.
“This epitomises the increasingly corporatised university model which is increasingly worried about its image.”
When and in what circumstances students have the right to protest on their own campuses is a question of law and policy that has no one simple, universally applicable answer. The bounds of what is possible and permissible vary over time and from place to place.