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Protestors demand freedom of expression at University

An angry student | 21.02.2008 17:46 | Education | Repression

Today around 80 protesters marched around the University of Nottingham's campus to demand freedom of expression and an end to the University's repression of student activists. In spite of the University's deployment of undercover spies and a police cameraman, the mood was good and protestors got a generally warm reception from other members of the student body.

The protest had been called in response to several events indicating an increasing intolerance of protest by University authorities. These included the calling of police onto campus to deal with a Palestinian solidarity protest, which ended in the arrest of a student:
Also mentioned in the protesters' flyers were the cases of a student who was banned from the University's library facilities for campaigning to reduce library card costs, and students who were fined £300 by University authorities for initiating a petition about university accommodation:
The demonstration aimed to get the University to respect students' right to free speech, and to demand that the University allow protests, rather than organisers having to seek permission. The protest was organised without permission from the University.

I arrived 10 minutes early to hear that some suspicious individuals were walking around the Portland Building wearing earpieces and exchanging whispers. Sure enough, a man in his 50s and a similar aged woman could clearly be seen staring out of upper storey windows at the assembling demonstration and peering out of the door. When challenged as to what they were doing, their stories were unconvincing and they seemed very nervous about being photographed or filmed, scurrying away when they realised they cameras were pointed at them. Any footage or photos of these individuals would be appreciated in order to identify them. Presumably they were either Uni Security in plainclothes or people brought in from outside, although they didn't seem to be very professional.

In another more amusing development, satirical flyers had been distributed, claiming to be from the University and proposing 'Free Speech Zones' be created that would keep free thinking separate from everyday life.

The demonstrators assembled on the steps outside with many banners and placards. They were mostly students although some staff were there in support as well. Some of the groups present seemed to have their own agenda, including a small group carrying bits of paper with information about certain states' repression of free speech (Zimbabwe and Lebanon were mentioned). When I asked them what they thought about the suppression of civil liberties in the UK they said that they didn't know enough to comment. Maybe it would be worth them doing their homework before the next time! The event had attracted a large amount of media attention and shutters were clicking all around. An announcement was made over the megaphone explaining why the protest had been called and criticising the Students Union for siding whole heartedly with the University against the students facing repression.

Protesters marched around the Portland building briefly picking up a group displaying a large Israeli flag. The Palestinian Society demonstration at which a student was arrested was criticised by the University on the grounds that it had caused offense to Jewish and Israeli students. Given this history, the Israelis' presence at the demo might have seemed strange. The situation was quickly defused by an announcement over the megaphone that the march was supporting the free speech of all people from all societies, including Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli support seemed to be short lived because I didn't see the flag again.

The march proceded to the Hallward library, where the student was arrested at the Palestine demo, and he made a speech to the assembled group, condemning the repression. We then moved on to the Trent Building, where the University administration, including the Vice-Chancellor, is based. A nervous looking man in a suit stood guard as we passed the VC's flash car, and jokes were made about him giving us ideas. In the main courtyard we were met by two University Security guarding the entrance near the VC's office, and a police cameraman who proceded to film protestors. The courtyard was filled with chants, including a short-lived but spirited rendition of 'No Justice! No Peace! Fight the Police!' from a small group at the back.

Disappointingly, no attempt was made to enter the Trent Building, perhaps via another unguarded door, as has occurred in the past:
Perhaps that's an idea for next time... The march went through the courtyard and circled round across the grass to head back towards the library. We paused again on the grass at the back of the Portland Building, whilst security guards peered from behind bushes, and the march finished shortly after.

People seemed positive about the way the day had gone, claiming that they had got their messages across to lots of students and raised awareness about the issues. The sizeable turnout would, hopefully, mean that the University would take notice of the demands. The fact that the University was forced to allow the demonstration to go ahead, even though it was unauthorised and strongly critical of their handling of the situation, should make people feel empowered. We will not be silenced!

An angry student