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In praise of protest

March 24, 2012

It’s just over a fortnight since Owen Holland was suspended for seven terms (two and a half years) by Cambridge University’s disciplinary board for interrupting David Willetts with a poem last November. In that time we have seen the obligatory protest march of about 400 students and academics, a 7,000-strong petition in support of the English PhD student, numerous column inches debating the issue and perhaps the most memorable event, the silent protest outside the installation of the university’s new chancellor, Lord Sainsbury.

I attended the ceremony after covering the protest. The two ladies behind me were talking about the protest: “Very powerful. The sentence is a bit over the top,” one said. The other agreed. This seems to be the broadly sensible response to the issue. Whatever you think about the Government’s higher education white paper, a seven-term suspension for one man among dozens for interrupting a speech is a disproportionate sentence. And a poor PR move on the part of the university. If they thought they could banish Holland for so long and keep it quiet, they were foolish.

Yes, Willetts had the right to speak. And perhaps the protest would have been better after the speech had come to an end. But, as the new chancellor said in his speech on Wednesday, the university’s job is to teach students how to think for themselves and to challenge what is put in front of them. Whether you agree with the work of Cambridge Defend Education and Holland or not, you have to respect their engagement, principles and activism. Protest is a vital part of society.

Without protest we have no mouthpiece to show discontent but a vote: to elect a Government or in the university’s case, a chancellor. While some major protests (Iraq war is a perfect example) may not have resulted in the protesters’ aim, they are an excellent way of getting your voice heard in a day and age where apathy often sounds the loudest. Protests are the best antidote to the oft-used criticism of society, a simple lack of caring.

If you read some of the student newspaper columnists (and the comments), many criticise Cambridge Defend Education for their selective protection of free speech – silencing Willetts but condeming the university. They call CDE ignorant and hypocritical. They slam champagne socialism and mock the “student protester”. But when something they care about is up against the wall, what are they going to do about it? Put up and shut up? In a statement, read out by Gerard Tully, Holland praised the “solidarity” shown by the students and academics who had supported him. And this is what the support for Holland is about, it’s about not letting an institution bully a student. Maybe the university is right to discipline him, though I believe there are better alternatives, but to try and make an example of him? They are making a martyr instead.

Holland will appeal his sentence and the if university has any sense it will repeal its decision or decrease the sentence. If this does happen nobody will be able to say it is not the right thing to do. You can bet it would not have happened had CDE not taken to the streets twice over the past fortnight. As we saw with Occupy LSX, protest aims can be blurry and lack structure, but at least they are out there, at least they care, and every now and again, they will make a difference.

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