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Universities secure High Court orders against pro-Palestinian protest camps


By PA News

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The Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham have secured High Court orders for the possession of campus land that has been the site of weeks-long pro-Palestinian protest encampments.

The two educational bodies took separate legal action against “persons unknown” and two named activists as part of bids to the end occupation of areas where tents had been set up since early May.

In two written rulings on Tuesday, a judge granted summary possession orders – a legal step to decide the cases in the universities’ favour without a full trial.

The protest encampment at the University of Birmingham’s Green Heart site pictured in May (Phil Barnett/PA)
The protest encampment at the University of Birmingham’s Green Heart site pictured in May (Phil Barnett/PA)

Mr Justice Johnson concluded that protesters had “no real prospect” of showing that the universities had breached their duties or that an order would be incompatible with their human rights.

The orders cover the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus, where there were around 10 to 15 tents near the Advanced Manufacturing Building.

They also cover the University of Birmingham’s “Green Heart” outdoor area on its Edgbaston campus – the site of more than 80 tents last month – as well as its Exchange Building in central Birmingham and the Selly Oak campus where there are no protests.

Over the course of two hearings in London last week, the judge was told that the camps were part of nationwide protests at British universities, held in solidarity with demonstrations in North America and in support of people in conflict-torn Gaza.

Protesters, many of whom universities have been unable to identify, allege universities are “complicit” in the loss of life in Palestine and should “divest” from links to arms firms.

Mariyah Ali, a defendant in the Birmingham case, attended a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London earlier this month (Tom Pilgrim/PA)
Mariyah Ali, a defendant in the Birmingham case, attended a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London earlier this month (Tom Pilgrim/PA)

Muslim British-Pakistani student Mariyah Ali, 20, from Walsall, the only named defendant in the Birmingham case, said the legal action was a “censoring tactic” and discrimination against the “manifestation” of her religious and philosophical beliefs.

Former student River Butterworth, 24, from Warwickshire, the sole named protester in the Nottingham legal challenge, argued a court order helping to “evict” the encampment would be a “disproportionate interference” with their free speech and protest rights.

Lawyers for the universities accused protesters of trespassing on private land, bringing a risk of public disturbance, causing disruption and financial loss as well as being allegedly linked to “unlawful activities”.

Mr Justice Johnson said he came to his two rulings on the assumption that the camps were “peaceful” and did not rule on disputed accounts of alleged disruptive acts.

The judge said the evidence showed the universities were not trying to regain their land because of the protesters’ beliefs and that the legal action was the “least intrusive” way of achieving this.

He said there were “many other ways” activists could exercise their right to protest without occupying land, concluding that protesters were trespassing.

River Butterworth claimed a court possession order would interfere with their rights to free speech and protest (Tom Pilgrim/PA)
River Butterworth claimed a court possession order would interfere with their rights to free speech and protest (Tom Pilgrim/PA)

The rulings follow the London School of Economics securing a Central London County Court order indefinitely barring encampments in one of its buildings after students slept in its atrium for more than a month in support of Palestine.

Queen Mary University of London has previously said it would take legal action to secure possession of its Mile End campus if protest encampments did not end.

Ms Ali said after the ruling: “I am incredibly disappointed by the court’s decision today to restrict my right to protest.”

She added that she was “deeply saddened” that her university was “trying to silence students to protect their ties with arms manufacturers such as BAE systems”, adding that it had “contradicted their values by restricting my right to challenge longstanding ideas and advocating for BDS (Boycott Divest Sanctions) and Palestinian liberation”.

The University of Birmingham’s legal team previously denied complicity over the impact of the conflict in Gaza.

Oliver Edwards, a solicitor from law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, who represents Ms Ali, said she was “disheartened” but “remains committed to her cause”.

“Protests at universities have a long tradition in democratic society and we maintain that the university is breaching our client’s fundamental human rights,” he said.

He added that Ms Ali intends to “restate her BDS protest” and is considering appealing.

A University of Birmingham statement said: “The court’s decision will help us to ensure that all of our diverse community can go about their business and use the entirety of the university’s campus without feeling that there are parts of campus where they cannot go.”

It said it respected students’ and staff’s right to protest “within the law”, adding: “We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to free speech for the whole of the university community.”

A University of Nottingham spokesperson said: “The University of Nottingham upholds freedom of speech and our priority is, and always will be, to ensure that opportunities to engage in debate or protest are safe, inclusive, dignified, respectful and responsible.

“The order from the court will allow us to ensure that we can take action should the need arise to protect the health and safety of our university community on campus and to minimise disruption to students and staff accessing the teaching, learning and research spaces they require.”

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