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Friday, October 28, 2005

Latest article for Redbrick, published today

For those of you who don't have access to a copy of Redbrick (you're not missing out, don't worry):

The case of five students and one graduate of Lancaster University who were found guilty on Friday 30th September this year of ‘aggravated trespass’ for protesting at a business conference at the University last year is to go to appeal, following strong reaction at the verdict.

On Monday 10th September 2004, the protesters went into the George Fox building in the University in order to address the Corporate Venture conference about the ethics of multi-national companies and the privatisation of university research, the subject matter of the conference. The group has become known as ‘The George Fox Six’.

The pivotal point of the case was whether the protesters caused ‘disruption, obstruction or intimidation’. Witnesses, predictably, disagreed on this point. Although the protest, lasting around five minutes, was reportedly very noisy, the defence claimed delegates were ‘heckling and laughing’, with one stating, “I cannot understand why the university is pursuing action against its own students”.

This view appears popular, given support for the six. The verdict has sparked indignant debate amongst the academic community, including the NUS, who described the University’s reaction was ‘ridiculously heavy-handed’. Others supporting the protesters include The Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, Lancaster’s Association of University Teachers and Noam Chomsky. Reaction has been particularly strong considering the history of universities as facilitators and cultivators of freedom of speech.

The fact that Quaker George Fox, after whom the building was named, supported fair trade added to the protesters’ cause. Local Quakers have previously requested that the building not be used for certain events because of his beliefs.

Human rights watchdog Liberty expressed concern that this is symptomatic of a shift in Britain towards suppression of freedom of speech, exemplified also in the Labour conference this year.

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