This week I was unable to fulfill Guild Council’s mandate to sign a letter to the University. This may seem odd as I was the author of the motion which gave the mandate, but I didn’t sign the letter because it was meant to be a way of correcting an incorrect public statement sent out by the Guild to all students in a joint letter with the University yet it did not do so. I also felt that the letter was not sufficient to cover what the motion was requesting and I think that it is important that all students have a good understanding of how the injunction applies to them.
On 11/01/12 Mark Harrop, the President of the Guild, co-signed a letter with the PVC Education, the letter which is attached below. The letter he co-signed is essentially in support of the injunction and the University. This is the same injunction “banning protests” which has been condemned by Amnesty International and Liberty, amongst others. The letter is factually incorrect and, further to this, it provides whitewash for the University’s action, covering up their regressive actions. The co-signing by the Guild is certainly a breach of mandate to defend the right to protest as it seeks to hide facts and justify the removal of the right to protest.
At the time, Mark was being widely criticised for giving evidence against a student involved in the occupation so the issue didn’t get much attention. However, it is not the role of the student union to cover up for the University’s regressive actions. The below aims to set the record straight.
Points from the letter signed by Mark that were incorrect:
1. “We are writing to you to address any misunderstandings concerning the University’s approach to student protests, to clarify the facts of the unlawful possession of a University property in late November and associated injunction”
The possession of the abandoned property was in fact deemed lawful by the police. Sit-ins that do not disrupt any other legal activity are not against the law and the protests in the property were deemed by the police to have had squatters rights. No arrests were made and no charges brought.
2. “The University and the Guild uphold the legal rights of individuals to protest peacefully. We are absolutely committed to these rights, and no actions we have taken, or will take, would infringe these in any way. The University also has an obligation to protect the safety and well-being of our students, staff and the wider community “
This is purely and quite transparently an outright lie: as if a university that has been condemned by Amnesty, Liberty and Index of Censorship for infringing the right to protest can claim this. The Guild should never have signed this statement. Especially as when they signed it they were bound by policy to object to the injunction. Signing this was a brazen breach of a Guild Council mandate.
3. “Throughout this time the protestors had access to running water, food and legal advice.”
This is again untrue. In fact, public statements from the Guild at the time show that food had to be negotiated into the protest and video evidence shows university security prevented students from passing food to the protesters. The protestors were also effectively denied access to lawyers. A statement from the protestors’ lawyers states that the University “Insisted on filming lawyers from this office attempting to visit our clients thereby preventing legally privileged conversations from taking place.”
4. The injunction applies only to those individuals who occupied the lodge; it does not limit their freedom of speech in any way, nor does it affect any other students of our university.
This was a key contention in the latest letter that I refused to sign. The University are trying to cover up the fact that they took out an injunction that can be used against any student. It is very important that all students understand exactly how the injunction applies to them because it does mean that students not involved in the occupation may have the police called on them, and in fact this has already happened.
After the protest had ended the university chose to proceed to a full hearing to get the injuncton. On the morning of 25th November, Michael Green of Martineau Solicitors telephoned Tessa Gregory, a solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers representing the protestors. He called to state that university “intelligence” suggested that a further protest was planned at 9:30am that morning. He made it clear the university would seek to enforce the terms of the injunction and take action against any protestors who entered the campus. This position was echoed in the witness statement of Martin Edwards of Martineau Solicitors dated 25th November 2011. Mr Edwards states, in respect of a message posted on an internet site which called on protestors to gather on campus (without any indication it would be an occupation of buildings), that:
“I notified the police at 9:15am… and indicated to them that it would be breach of our Court order which prevents anyone named or otherwise from holding any occupational protest. The police called me back at 9:40 am to confirm they are attending the North gate and they will monitor the situation.”
Many of these students did not participate in the northgate occupation and the university never even claimed they had, yet the university still decided that their coming onto campus to protest was in violation of the injunction which they believe applies to ‘anyone named or otherwise’ and called the police on them. So in fact, far from it applying to just a few students and stopping them from doing ‘occupational protest’, it applies to us all. I shall not be complicit in the Guild’s misleading students to shield university management from criticism.
I hope this clarifies the misinformation on the injunction and why we all now need to unite and stand up to unprecedented attack on free speech on campus.
Letter from Mark Harrop and PVC Education to all students
Protest on Campus
We hope you enjoyed a good break over the festive period and we are happy to welcome you back to University.
We are writing to you to address any misunderstandings concerning the University’s approach to student protests, to clarify the facts of the unlawful possession of a University property in late November and associated injunction, and highlight the joint protocol between the University and the Guild of Students that confirms the rights of students to protest.
We think it is important that you have the complete and clear facts.
The University and the Guild uphold the legal rights of individuals to protest peacefully. We are absolutely committed to these rights, and no actions we have taken, or will take, would infringe these in any way. The University also has an obligation to protect the safety and well-being of our students, staff and the wider community.
Just after midnight on Wednesday 23rd November around 25 protesters took unlawful possession of a small, listed residential bungalow on our campus. The small property is not designed to accommodate this number of people. We repeatedly asked the protestors to leave the property over the two days, on the grounds that their safety was at risk. Throughout this time the protestors had access to running water, food and legal advice.
The fire safety officer’s professional opinion was that the occupation of a domestic building by around 25 people was clearly well in excess of that which would be expected for this type and design of building. There was no fire fighting equipment in the property, no emergency lighting and no fire doors. For these reasons, the safety of the protestors was at risk. We therefore notified the protestors in the building of the identified fire risk and again requested that they vacate the property before dark, with a deadline of 3pm. Again the protestors refused to leave.
Having taken legal advice, the University considered it had no option but to apply to the High Court, as a last resort, in order to obtain possession of the occupied building. The High Court judge awarded possession and an injunction preventing further occupation of University premises by these individual students for a period of 12 months, because of his concerns about the disregard of safety issues by the protestors. At approximately 8pm on the 26th November the Court’s order was served and was effective immediately. The protestors chose to leave the property at approximately 9pm. The injunction applies only to those individuals who occupied the lodge; it does not limit their freedom of speech in any way, nor does it affect any other students of our university.
Guild of Student sabbatical officers were present throughout the event.
The University and the Guild of Students are currently working together to develop a protocol that will clearly articulate how the free expression of views by students within the law will be respected whilst not disrupting, or affecting the health and safety of the protestors, other students, the public and staff. The protocol will affirm our joint commitment to recognise and preserve the right of peaceful protest and freedom of speech within the University’s Freedom of Speech Code of Practice.
We hope that this has reassured you of the University’s approach but if you have any further queries please do contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Professor Karen O’Brien
Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education
University of Birmingham
University of Birmingham Guild of Students