Impeding freedom of speech - disciplinary offence or legitimate protest?

9 July 2012

The outcome of a recent appeal against the decision of Cambridge University’s Court of Discipline highlights that a non-violent student protest may give rise to disciplinary proceedings for those involved.

On 22 November 2011, David Willetts the Minister of State for Universities and Science attended Cambridge University to present a lecture on “The Idea of the University”.

Student protesters interrupted the lecture by chanting an epistle entitled “Go home, David: An Epistle to David Willetts”.  Owen Holland a PhD student in English at St Catherine’s College led the recital of the epistle which was repeated back by other protesters.  The reading lasted approximately 15 minutes.  Following the call-and-response a group of students occupied the stage.  Mr Holland joined the occupation of the stage once the occupation was established.  Eventually Mr Willetts left without giving his lecture and the event was cancelled.

On 22 December 2011 the University Advocate charged Mr Holland for disciplinary offences arising from his involvement in the protest.  The charge alleged that Mr Holland had recklessly or intentionally “impeded freedom of speech in that he caused or significantly contributed to the disruption of a lecture”. The charge did not relate to the occupation of the stage.   Mr Holland was the only student to have been subject to disciplinary proceedings as a result of the protest.

The hearing of the Court of Discipline took place on 14 March 2012.  Mr Holland was found guilty of the disciplinary offence and was given an unprecedented sentence of suspension from the university for two-and-a-half years, or seven terms. 

The decision provoked outrage among students and academics alike; petitions were obtained and a march organised. The University was criticised for being seen to punish peaceful protest and for failing to understand and reflect the wishes of the student body.

Mr Holland was represented pro bono by Michael Beloff QC and Tristan Jones of Blackstone Chambers and Kingsley Napley LLP appealed against the decision. On appeal it was argued that the finding of guilt was an unlawful interference with Mr Holland’s right to freedom of expression and the severity of the sentence was wholly disproportionate to the conduct in question.
 
On 22 June 2012, the Septemviri, the appeal court of the University, upheld the finding of guilt but ruled that the sentence be reduced to one term.  In reaching that decision they held that Mr Holland had “failed to act responsibly in exercising his freedom of speech in the circumstances and the manner he did” but found that his conduct did not call for a deterrent sentence that would send a message to others who may be tempted to act in a similar way. That concession was tempered by this warning “It does not follow that in any future case that we will necessarily take that generous view”.

It is difficult to imagine a more peaceful form of protest than the act of reciting a poem protesting against plans to raise student fees in a university lecture hall.  One might, as many have, question whether the act of singling out Mr Holland for disciplinary proceedings undermines the University’s professed commitment to freedom of speech and the right to protest. It remains to be seen whether the threat of disciplinary proceedings and the consequences of such actions will deter others from engaging in similar conduct in the future.

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