The student occupiers dying by their own censorious sword

To protect the right to protest, students must get serious about free speech.

After almost a month of musty sit-ins and ad hoc Owen Jones Q&As, it seems the recent flurry of London student occupations are drawing to a close. Yesterday, the University of the Arts London (UAL) won an injunction against student occupiers who have been camped out in the reception area of Central Saint Martins in King’s Cross since 19 March. OccupyUAL, which inspired similar occupations at King’s College, LSE and Goldsmiths, was a response to UAL’s plans to cut 580 foundation-course places for art and design. Fifteen of the occupiers, half of whom are officers in the students’ unions, were summoned to appear at the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday.

It seemed inevitable. Universities across the country have shown little hesitation in calling in the authorities as a series of anti-cuts demonstrations and occupations have bubbled up across the country. In 2012, occupiers at the University of Sussex were served with an injunction and five of the leaders were expelled following an occupation in protest at the privatisation of campus services. At Warwick last December, police, armed with tear gas and tasers, were called to break up an anti-fees protest.

This is a troubling development. The freedom to protest, on campus or elsewhere, is not absolute. One person’s right to express his or her political convictions through physical action does, necessarily, have to be weighed against the rights of other citizens, or students, to go about their business and access certain spaces. Nevertheless, this balancing act is one which UAL and others have all but refused to strike – setting a dangerous precedent for the future of student protest.

But before we join in the chorus of hashtag solidarity, it’s important to note that these students have done nothing to help themselves. After a brief flurry in 2010, recent anti-cuts movements have completely failed to gain any meaningful support from the vast majority of students. The ongoing LSE occupation only consists of around 10 regular protesters, out of an enrolment of over 10,000. The fact that only 15 protesters were the subject of UAL’s injunction paints a similarly paltry picture. If you flout the rules to make a political point, you should expect consequences. But, with a little more student muscle and moral support behind the occupiers, UAL would not have been able to call in the authorities with such ease – and to so little protest.

But, more crucially, student protesters have also made a rod for their own back. Shelly Asquith, the president of UAL’s students’ union and one of 15 named in UAL’s injunction, damned the university’s action as an affront to their ‘fundamental human right to protest’ and an expression of ‘utter contempt’ for students and their views. Given that students’ union radicals have been at the forefront of policing campus speech and protest – No Platforming controversial speakers, imposing smothering Safe Space policies, and banning campus demonstrations by pro-life groups – they can hardly claim the mantle of free-speech martyrs.

Universities have long colluded with students’ unions to keep undesirable speakers and controversial groups off campus. UAL’s decision to call in the cops was a reflection of the deeply risk-averse and intolerant dynamic that illiberal students themselves have helped to create. When you restrict the free speech and free assembly of those you disagree with, it won’t be long before it comes back to bite you in the arse. This is an age-old lesson that these students need to learn.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked and coordinator of the Down With Campus Censorship! campaign.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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