Less than 24 hours after a demonstration at the University of Birmingham on 29 January, at which 13 students were arrested, the University suspended five students. The invitation of police onto campus, the arrests and the subsequent suspensions have been met with intense criticism, with the University being accused by students and staff of draconian punishment and silencing dissent. On 10 February, the Guardian published a letter signed by over forty academics, artists and politicians, including Noam Chomsky and Ken Loach, condemning the actions of the University of Birmingham as being ‘at odds with freedom of speech.’ The letter went on to condemn the suspensions in ‘the strongest terms’ and called for the ‘immediate reinstatement of the students affected.’
Although the University of Birmingham has so far refused to publicly respond to criticism it has recently reinstated three of the five originally suspended students, one of whom, Deborah Hermanns, wrote an account of her experience. Nonetheless, two students, Simon Furse and Kelly Rogers, remain suspended and as such are prevented from coming onto campus and from completing their degrees. Kelly Rogers remarked how the suspensions ‘are an attempt to use Simon and myself as examples to intimidate other students from protesting in future. The suspension is having a severe impact on my life, studies and health. I have . . . no idea when or whether I will be able to continue my studies, despite not having even been charged, let alone found guilty. It’s a disgrace, and utterly ludicrous.’
The Guild of Students and Birmingham UCU have called upon the University of Birmingham to lift the remaining suspensions and have jointly organised a demonstration for Wednesday (26 March) to further emphasise their demand and defend the right to protest on campus. Speaking of the forthcoming demonstration, Vice President of Education, Hattie Craig, said: ‘If we want our movement to continue to be able to take radical action it’s essential that we stand up for activists who have been victimised. If we allow our universities to get away with arbitrarily suspending students for their involvement in protest then I fear that this is a sanction that we will see employed with increasing frequency. Students at Sussex and Birmingham have been suspended this year, who knows where we’ll see it next?’
In anticipation of Wednesday’s protest 228 University of Birmingham staff have signed a letter to the Vice Chancellor, Professor David Eastwood, expressing ‘concern at the practice of suspending students for exercising their right to free speech and their right to protest on campus’ and imploring him to ‘reinstate the two remaining students with immediate effect’.
The demonstration takes place this Wednesday at 13.00pm at the Guild of Students, Edgbaston Park Road, B1. For more information visit the event page. Alternatively, Defend Education Birmingham provide regular updates and advice on how to get involved with the campaign.
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