News broke recently that leading-human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC has offered to defend five students from the University of Sussex in front of a student disciplinary panel. The students were suspended last year for their involvement in the occupation of university buildings as part of the student campaign against the privatisation of university services. Although they were reinstated before Christmas, they may face further fines or possible suspension.
This is great news for the so-called Sussex Five, as Robertson’s expertise and sizeable reputation will likely work in their favour. However, the fact that the Sussex Five are now depending on a legal heavy-hitter to fight their battle for them, reflects poorly on the state of the student body politic. These five should have had nationwide support from the National Union of Students (NUS), but the NUS seems decidedly uninterested. Meanwhile, rallies on campus protesting the expulsion are thin on the ground. This is nothing new. Student interest in the campaign at Sussex has always been lacking. And instead of trying to galvanise the student body, the protesters have often looked to high-profile outsiders to bolster their position.
The strange world of Twitter arguably plays a more crucial role in student politics today than students. After all, it wasn’t through winning support from fellow students that the Sussex Five managed to fight their case; it was through tweeting Frankie Boyle, Billy Bragg, Caroline Lucas and anyone else who had a decent number of followers and a reputation for being a bit of a lefty. How embarrassing for the so-called student movement that it relies on b-listers for support and publicity, rather than students themselves. Indeed, the Sussex Five campaign only made it into local Brighton newspaper, the Argus, after they received tweets of support from supermodel Cara Delevigne.
By attempting to ban these five student protesters from campus, the university is violating free speech. But the fact that free speech, the principle which should be at stake here, has been obscured by the focus on a personal, celeb-backed battle between five students and university management reveals the wasteland that is student politics today.
Anyone who believes in freedom of speech should defend these students against threats of expulsion. But a Twitterstorm does not a student movement make.