On 21 February, around 100 students from the University of Nottingham and the local area took to the campus grounds in a demonstration demanding their basic democratic right to free speech.
The demonstration followed a number of recent protests at the University where this right had been denied. One of these involved the arrest of a member of the Palestinian Society for “breach of the peace”. The University authorities had called the police while he was protesting peacefully against the abuse of human rights in Palestine. The University had also banned another student from the library after his much-publicised protest against the cost of library cards. On another occasion, students collecting a petition against rising accommodation fees and declining standards in food and security were fined and had their petition disallowed.
The fact that the University has reacted in such a reactionary and totalitarian manner to “bread and butter” issues regarding campus meals and library cards, politicised these issues a great deal. Many different people at the University stood in support of the protest, and although the protest was small in number, it brought together people with a range of different concerns. Many saw the 21 February demonstration as an opportunity to voice their concerns about wider issues of injustice and inequality.
The University of Nottingham Students Union refused to support the protest, and all the organisation and resources for the event were drawn from grass-roots student activism.
The sound of snare drums and chants filled the air as students rallied support outside the library, in the same spot that the Pal-Soc member had been arrested. That same student led this demonstration with rousing words through a megaphone, as the demonstrators moved on to the imposing courtyard of Trent Building. Standing outside the office of the Vice Chancellor and other leading figures at the University, the demonstrators, who had not sought permission to demonstrate, were watched and filmed by undercover police.
One of the organisers explained some of the other reasons students were protesting that day. “Anti-terror laws are being used to harass innocent, predominantly Black, Asian and Arab people. The same laws are being used to silence peaceful protesters, climate change activists — anyone who raises a voice of dissent against the system.”
Some protesters held up signs saying “Freedom of Speech in Lebanon”, while others waved placards that read “Danger: Peaceful Protesters”, which brought home the message many of the participants were there to send.
The University has yet to respond to the message of the protesters. However, many members of the academic staff signed a petition condemning the University’s actions towards students who have fought against policies that they deem unfair or unjust. Only time will tell if the University will choose to respond in a more enlightened manner to the issue of students exercising their fundamental democratic rights and freedoms.