Injunction criminalises all occupation-style protests on Birmingham's 250-acre campus for the next 12 months
One of the biggest universities in the UK has obtained a high court injunction that criminalises all occupation-style protests on it's 250-acre campus for the next 12 months, the Guardian has learned.
After a recent small scale occupation of abandoned campus building and a series of protests against rising fees which have resulted in student suspensions and sanctions, University of Birmingham University lawyers went to the regional division of the high court two weeks ago and won an order banning "occupational protest action" upon "persons unknown" without prior permission.
The court order has caused outrage amongst students including the president of the National Union of Students who called for the injunction to be immediately abandoned.
Birmingham's actions follows a similar move by Sheffield University which earlier this week agreed to drop their own high court order banning protests without prior permission on campus for a year, after their students' union contested the claim.
Lawyers acting for Birmingham students fear that the terms of the order granted by judge David Grant on 25 November is broad enough to potentially criminalise any protest in which participants remain in any location for any period of time.
Students have vowed to protest on campus in reaction to the order but if they are found to be breaking the injunction they could face fine's, seizure of assets and imprisonment for contempt of court.
The terms of the injunction say that, "the defendants shall not, without the prior written consent of the claimant, [Birmingham University] enter or remain upon land comprising the claimant's campus and buildings at the University of Birmingham ... for the purpose of any occupational protest action."
Tessa Gregory, a solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers who is acting on behalf on Birmingham students challenging the claim described the university authority's actions as shameful and draconian:
"It is deeply concerning that the University of Birmingham have chosen to respond in such a draconian manner to a [previous] peaceful protest," she said.
"The injunction obtained is extremely wide in its application – it prevents persons entering the University for "the purpose of any occupational protest action", it covers the entire 250 acres of campus and it will endure for 12 months.
"Students staging a sit-down protest in a field on campus may therefore find themselves in breach of the injunction. This is wholly disproportionate and ripe for challenge. It is a shameful attempt by the University to prevent students from exercising their lawful right to protest."
She added that since the order was made against person's unknown, it could effectively catch any of Birmingham's 24,000 students engaging in stationary protest if the university chose to take them to court.
President of the National Union of Students NUS Liam Burns said, "Turning to the courts to stop occupations is using a hammer to crack a nut. There are legitimate conversations to be had about how best to facilitate peaceful protests and occupations ... However, universities need to remember that their campuses are places to develop citizens not silence dissent.
"The idea that students should seek permission for protest action somewhat misses the point of an occupation action. The university should immediately drop this injunction and enter into a genuine dialogue with students rather than slapping an injunction across campus for a full year without even consulting their students' union."
A spokesperson for the university said that the injunction was taken out because evidence suggested that further occupations were planned but that the order "in no way" inhibited the rights of students to protest on campus. "It merely covers the unauthorised occupation of campus or buildings," the spokesperson said.
Mark Harrop, president of the University of Birmingham Guild of Students, said he was concerned about the order and that his guild would support students who wanted to protest.
"The University of Birmingham Guild of Students' recognises the right of students to protest peacefully and lawfully on the university campus to raise awareness, and will support those students who wish to do so. Any restrictions placed on those rights are of concern."
Committee member of the National campaign against Fees and Cuts, Ed Bauer, who is currently suspended from his post as Birmingham student Guild education officer due to his anti-cuts protests said, "Universities are meant to be bastions of free speech and debate and a safe space for all ideas to be raised. The idea that you should ban all protest on campus for 12 months is absolutely ludicrous".
"This epitomises the increasingly corporatised university model which is increasingly worried about its image."
"If this injunction is used, we will have no other option but to organise an extremely large demonstration and bring in students from all over the country to defend the right to protest."
The Morning Star Online