Bruce Beckles, ‘A World Away from the Court of Discipline’

A WORLD AWAY FROM THE COURT OF DISCIPLINE: A UNIVERSITY REGENT’S VIEW

I do not believe that Owen Holland – sentenced earlier this week [1] – did, as the University contends, or in any meaningful sense, “impede freedom of speech within the Precincts of the University”.  In particular, having seen the University’s evidence, I do not believe they have established this beyond reasonable doubt, which they are required to do for a guilty verdict.[2] (Compare, for instance, the protester Martin Jahnke’s acquittal before a Magistrates’ Court of a public order offence after he disrupted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech at the University by blowing a whistle, shouting, and throwing his shoe at the stage.[3])

But even if Mr Holland were guilty of “impeding freedom of speech”, the sentence is out of all proportion to the supposed offence: for allegedly denying a government Minister free speech for 1.5 hours, the University has actually denied Mr Holland’s academic freedom and his rights to education, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly for 2.5 years. I observe that had Mr Holland been charged before a criminal court with some appropriate public order offence (probably under section 4A or 5 of the Public Order Act 1986), a guilty verdict would not have been accompanied by such a punitive sentence (a maximum of a 6 month sentence under section 4A or a fine under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986).

Now, in the aftermath of this so-called “trial”, I find my thoughts keep returning to two questions in particular.  Firstly, how will my University colleagues respond when faced with such a blatant injustice inflicted in our name, supposedly for our protection?  And secondly, what justification will the University administration give for (a) the actions taken (or failures to act) by the administration, some University Officers and the Court of Discipline, that have led to this sentence; and (b) the sentence itself?

With regard to my colleagues’ reactions, I await with especial eagerness a public statement from Professor Goldhill, the organiser of the event at which the protest which gave rise to the charge against Mr Holland took place.  Immediately after the protest, Professor Goldhill said: “the protest, in the name of protecting the values of the university, destroyed the values of the university”.[4]  As it happens, I disagree with him about that.  But it is undoubtedly the case that this sentence will have the effect of silencing student dissent within the University, i.e. of undermining the University’s commitment to freedom of speech, expression and assembly. Thus, the University Court, presumably acting to protect the University and its values, has instead acted as a destroyer of those values.  Since I’m sure Professor Goldhill is not a hypocrite, I expect his ringing denunciation of this sentence to appear any day now.

As far as the University’s justification for this farce, the University administration will, I imagine, claim that the Court of Discipline is independent of the University; the argument will run, therefore, that the University is in no way responsible for this sentence.  Were the administration to do this, it would be a  failure of moral responsibility comparable to that of the government of the day in regard to the Derek Bentley case.[5]  If the law is wrong, or open to abuse, it is the government’s responsibility to rectify this.  Similarly, if the University Courts operate in a way which allows such egregious miscarriages of justice as this then it is the University’s responsibility to take prompt remedial action.

The University has also claimed that it is not responsible for the decision to charge Mr Holland.[6]  The implication is, of course, that it is also not responsible for the decision to charge only Mr Holland, even though the incident giving rise to the charges was one for which over 50 members of the University have publicly claimed some measure of responsibility.[7] This claim is disingenuous: having received a complaint, it is indeed the decision of the University Advocate whether or not to bring a charge before a University Court.  But it was not the University Advocate who made the complaint against Mr Holland; and, in particular, it was not the University Advocate who decided to make the complaint against only a single individual.

Imagine a police force which, having established that 50 individuals participated in a riot, decided to refer to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) the case of a single individual alone, and moreover an individual who had less influence and fewer financial resources than a significant number of the other rioters, an individual who was in many ways more vulnerable than his fellow rioters, a great many of whom admit equal responsibility.  It seems obvious that were such a police force to then claim that it was in no way responsible for the selective prosecution of that single individual, but that the responsibility lay entirely with the CPS, such a claim would be neither credible nor morally defensible.

In the current situation, the University is that police force, and its failure to take responsibility for its actions is just as morally indefensible.  And like a police force not subject to adequate oversight, the University has abused the power it holds over one of the more vulnerable members of our community, and, the abuse discovered, is attempting to deny responsibility.  If pressed, it will retreat to another of the classic justifications for morally reprehensible acts: “our intentions were good; we were acting to protect the community as a whole”.

The only coherent justification I can see for this punishment is if the University has decided it is beneficial to suppress the freedoms of expression and assembly of those whose opinions are either opposed to, or which, publicly expressed, might embarrass, the University administration.  So in light of this verdict, I am ashamed to be a member of the governing body of the University of Cambridge.  I would like to take this opportunity to distance myself publicly from this sometimes great institution.  As with other great moral failures of our time I want to shout from the rooftops: “NOT IN MY NAME!

BRUCE BECKLES is a member of the University’s governing body, the Regent House; a University Officer; and an elected member of the University’s Board of Scrutiny from 1 October 2011 to 30 September 2015.

__________________________________________________

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/cambridge-student-receives-unprecedented-twoandahalf-year-suspension-for-universities-minister-protest-7567590.html

[2] As required by regulation 5 of Ordinances, Chapter II, COURT OF
DISCIPLINE, Rules of Procedure (Statutes and Ordinances, 2011, p.
204): http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/univ/so/2011/chapter02-section20.html#heading2-27

[3] http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1902486,00.html

[4] Originally posted on the website of the Centre for Research in the
Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
shortly after the protest, this
statement has since been removed.  This apparent lack of respect for
the historical record is rather remarkable, given its author is a
classicist.  Fortunately, a copy of Professor Goldhill’s statement can
still be read on this site here: https://donsspeakout.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/prof-simon-goldhill-condemns-student-protests/

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Derek_Bentley_case&oldid=481318443

[6] http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/4534

[7] https://donsspeakout.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/letter-to-the-university-advocate-and-to-the-vice-chancellor-7th-march-2012/

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