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18 March 2012updated 26 Sep 2015 8:02pm

Owen Holland’s case shows the crackdown on dissent

For daring to read a poem to David Willetts, the student has had his prospects ruined.

By Priyamvada Gopal

For daring to read a poem to David Willetts, the student has had his prospects ruined.

No combination in the world is more lethal than that of byzantine feudalism and gung-ho corporate technocracy. Cambridge PhD student Owen Holland ran afoul of it last December when he participated in a ‘people’s mic’ where dozens of students and a handful of dons told the visiting minister for Universities and Science what they thought of his destructive policies.The group collectively recited at David Willetts: “You have professed your commitment/to the religion of choice/but you leave us with no choice . . . your gods have failed.”

In the face of this poetic outburst, Willetts skipped class and flounced back to Westminster, his ego and, apparently, his right to free speech sadly injured.

While scores took part in the protest and were photographed doing so in a surveillance-heavy environment (another worrying development in this university), only Holland was charged with ‘recklessly or intentionally’ impeding free speech. He was brought before a University Court, the workings of which remain opaque to most dons and students.

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His now internationally notorious sentence for reading aloud to the minister before he took the podium? “Rustication” for two and a half years. Back in the good old days, young Cambridge men were ‘sent down’ in disgrace to the family country pile to spend their suspension presumably shooting grouse and molesting the milkmaids. In Holland’s case the intention is clearly to end his academic career.

The vindictiveness of this judgement in an institution of advanced learning is matched only by the familiar divide-and-rule crudity of singling out an individual for exemplary punishment in a collective peaceful protest. More than 70 students and dons turned themselves in and asked to be charged alongside Holland.

The sentence is absurd. But what should really concern us all is what this incident says about British democracy. It tells us that ‘free speech’ has become an inalienable right only for the powerful, for those who already have access to every newspaper and television outlet in the country. That citizens with fewer means should not find ways to express audible disagreement with the heavy-handed imposition of the profit principle across society at their own expense. That we are to worry about the abrogation of the rights of citizens only in countries we don’t like.

What is shocking about the Cambridge decision is not that this sort of disproportionate use of judicial force is exceptional but that it is increasingly the norm. Ever since young people began to challenge this coalition’s brazen marketisation and privatisation of everything from welfare and education to health and policing, the courts have sent out a single message: resist the relentless subordination of all aspects of human life and our society to the profit principle at your peril.

Apparently all clear and meaningful dissent is fundamentally unpatriotic: when not meek, young people are ‘violent’ and when they are actually peaceful — it’s difficult to imagine more calm forms of dissent than reading out a poem in a lecture hall — then they are culpable of a ‘reckless’ violation of the rights of the powerful to impose their views and will on us all.

Our shock at Holland’s treatment — and that of many other principled protesters like Alfie Meadows, who comes up for trial next week — should not obscure the issues they’ve been fighting to highlight: the deliberate transmutation of universities from spaces of debate which push the boundaries of knowledge into business-driven idea-free degree mills. As we metamorphose from citizens of a democracy into consumers in one large desolate supermarket, all of us are being disciplined. Resistance is not futile: it’s the only option.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge.

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