Fight For Your Right To Protest

Ex-CUSU Pres Rahul Mansigani condemns the University’s decision to rusticate Owen Holland.

courts CUSU disproportionate owen holland petition protest punishment rahul mansigani rustication seven months

In less than 24 hours, almost two thousand students have signed a CUSU petition condemning the University Court’s decision to rusticate Owen Holland for seven terms. Just under three thousand people have signed a public petition. And today, CUSU has called for a protest to show that Cambridge students will not stand for punitive, disproportionate punishment of one of their colleagues.

Many people, myself included, agree the disruption of David Willetts’ speech last year was damaging and unhelpful. But the message is clear: almost no one agrees with Owen’s punishment and we will not stand for such an outrageously disproportionate sentence, especially when Owen himself was not allowed to choose his representative, a fundamental right observed by courts and universities across the country.

Owen has committed no crime. The protest was peaceful and non-violent. No one was hurt. A poem was read, and echoed, and the Minister left. What’s more, Owen was simply one among many present at the demonstration.

Even the University Advocate, who was doubtless unsympathetic, demanded a sentence of just one term’s rustication. We are yet to see the court’s justification for its sentence a full seven times longer than demanded, but I cannot imagine fair reasons.

If they decided to punish Owen to make an example of him, as I suspect, I am appalled. That is not a fair or acceptable way to impose punishment in a relatively small, academic community. Rustication for a term would have been severe enough, but a sentence this harsh is a blow against that community. But it seems unlikely the court’s heavy sentence will act as a deterrent to further disruptive protests, in fact, CDE ominously announced that they were declaring war on the University.

Why was Owen singled out? Because, presumably, he was the first voice in the ‘human microphone’ employed by the protesters: a technique that inherently requires the participation of dozens of others. These dozens have signed the ‘Spartacus letter’ demanding that the University at least impose its (miscarriage of) justice equally, if they impose it at all.

The University has the right to discipline those who break its rules, but in order for the system to work that discipline must be sensitive and proportionate. Owen can now appeal to the archaically named Septemviri: let us hope that they show more justice in their consideration, and restore our University’s good name.

CUSU has called for a protest: petitions are useful tools, but students and academics coming together to show the strength and force of their feeling and anger at injustice is even more powerful. Last year, we led an emergency protest to prevent cuts to bursaries, and combined with committee work and lobbying, it worked. We can do it again—if we show the University that students will not stand for disastrously disproportionate punishment. We need to defend our right to protest peacefully without fearing a two year rustication.

So what can we do? Whether you’re an alumnus, a current student, or just angry about it, please sign the petition right away. If you’re in Cambridge today, or can get there, get to the Old Schools and join the protest at 1pm today outside Great St Mary’s Church. It really is rather important.

Rahul Mansigani was CUSU President 2010/11