The Lower Tribunal Vindicated
Regarding the appeal just concluded, let no one be deceived that this is a ‘good’ result. The archaic and persecutory machinery of the judicial apparatus has been upheld as intact and beyond challenge; the lower tribunal has been vindicated and its officers commended for righteous spirit. The discussion of principle has been cogently muddied by staging a contrast between the right of free speech on the one hand and the right to freedom of expression on the other, as if the conflict of values between these two positions was the fundamental issue in dispute. But of course this is certainly not the pivotal issue. Free expression can, as the Chairman of the kangaroos maintained, be pursued at sundry different occasions and in sundry different ways, there is no absolute need for this to cause significant disruption to discussion involving other persons. Ergo, to insist on a right of free expression in such way as to damage or impede general discussion is destructive and selfish.
But the issue is not right of expression, it is right of public, interventionist protest. The difference here is that, to contest the authoritarian structure of control and repressive privilege in managed public discourse, a protest intrinsically and purposefully must entail contesting polite manners and conventional underpinning of implicit values within the control echelon. It cannot be a sideshow, a personal debating manoeuvre. It has to be forceful and to contest the very idea of order that would repress it, so as to get a hearing beyond the mere chatter of disagreement. It has to confront the liberal pretension of ‘free speech for all’ because it must uncover the gross disparities of authority and intimidation that lie below the skin of reasonableness. Without doubt these are dangerous manoeuvres, within an institution nominally committed to open exercise of reasoned debate; yet when the preferential allocation of opportunity to speak becomes very deeply prejudicial to core values, protest is necessary and salutary and needs to occur exactly in the right place and at the right time.
Within a rational community, the right of emergency protest, of socially conspicuous dissent, may be equally as important as free speech and freedom of expression. An institution, and even its legal regulatory framework, needs to recognise the particular and special significance of protest, and to judge the boundaries of specific episodes with close attention. Threats of violence or vengeance-behaviour may be more than enough to outlaw protest incidents, not because they are protests but because they have been mounted with ancillary features which are rightly objectionable.
Protest is thus essentially political in its nature, a response to power often, as in this case, deployed against democratic entitlement to equal credit and argument-time. The programme of massive alteration to UK university structure advanced and fiercely pressed into effect by Willetts is completely authoritarian, and for inexplicable reasons our University authorities have lined up in endorsement of these governmental projects. The machine is driven by such drastic compulsions that only protest can make alternatives properly heard; reasonable counter-argument has been tried over and over, and has made no headway.
It’s not necessary to agree with the programme or propositions of a protest incident, in order to have grounds to defend the necessary right for dissentients to mount a public protest. There do need to be certain outer limits to what a protest may legitimately include (i.e. probably excluding material violence, et cetera), and a notion of proportionality in matching methods with targets. But to criminalise protesters is the sure sign of a repressive regime, confident in the control and intimidation that will confirm the upper levels of a hierarchy against alternative or grass-roots perspectives. The anti-Willetts protest was fairly spectacular (a necessary tactic) and was aimed at the government’s attempted destruction of intellectual communities, a crisis issue at the present time. No material violence of any kind was threatened or at any point took place.
This specific convergence of reasons for strenuous public protest should unquestionably exempt those involved in this case from being harrassed or criminalised for their parts in the episode; and the right of protest as a conceptual category should be incorporated into the thinking and practice of the institution in all its branches. For it is not the same as a general (qualified) right to free expression. The right to protest is fundamental to democracy, and to protest in such a way as to mobilise public opinion and to open closed structures to public view. Otherwise there is no check on the social repression that can be practised under cover of sweet reason, of decorum and good manners and persuasives to compliance.
These are the reasons why the judgement of the Septemviri in the instant case is not a good result, in any sense or to any degree. The sentence has been reduced, as a sop to leniency and to avert public outrage, but the verdict of guilty as charged had been resoundingly endorsed, leaving the apparatus unchallenged and its legitimacy beyond reach of objection. This is a bad result for Cambridge as a history and an idea, for the community here and for students and others within university systems worldwide; it’s a bad result for justice and democracy; and the deliberate intimidation behind this sentence will inevitably have its effect, on students and others who can now see even more clearly the force of authority mounted up against them. Do not let us be mollified by a remission of sentence, which should be seen as an insult to justice and not a welcome sweet mercy. We are stuck with this for the moment and should not deceive ourselves that all is somehow mostly or nearly alright: for it is very wrong.