Civil law poses threat to protest freedom

sussex uni roof

The use of civil injunctions and lawsuits is fast emerging as one of the biggest threats to protest freedom in the UK. Sussex University has obtained an injunction preventing any person from entering or remaining on the campus or buildings for the purpose of protest. At the time of writing students are still waiting to learn whether the injunction will allow the university to take possession of Bramber House, currently the site of a student occupation.

The injunction was brought after police decided not to intervene after protesters broke glass in a door, and set fire to some documents. The university said the protest on 25 March had been arranged without liaison with the university or the local police. Sussex Police told media outlets that despite damage caused to the university buildings a decision was made for officers to step back from the protest and not to use force.

Sussex university has used similar tactics before. They went to the high court in 2010 to bring a student occupation to an end – although students ran a strong campaign against it that ultimately led to the reinstatement of the ‘Sussex Six’. There were allegations then that John Duffy (a registrar who is still involved today) lied in his statement to the high court in support of the injunction.

Sussex is not the only higher educational establishment to have resorted to this type of action. In 2011 Birmingham University took out a similar civil injunction preventing protests in the university for a one-year period. Students have strongly opposed all attempts to use the civil law to prevent them engaging in protest – but the implications of this trend go beyond the student community.

Also this week came the news that Essex council has launched civil action to pursue Dale Farm residents for the £4.3m they claim it costs to evict the travellers last year. Police and bailiffs carried out a huge operation in 2011 to remove travellers from land they owned, but did not have planning permission to live on. Supporters of the Irish traveller community built barricades and ‘locked on’ to try to prevent the forced eviction. Bailiffs were only able to enter of the site after a massive and violent police operation. The community fears that Essex council intends to claim the land owned by the travellers at Dale Farm in lieu of the sum owed. This would be an extremely harsh punishment for resisting their eviction.

Earlier this month, the power giant EDF was forced to withdraw from its attempts to claim £5million in damages from environmental protesters. The civil lawsuit (on top of an ongoing trial for aggravated trespass where the defendants face possible jail terms) would have seen the protestors potentially losing their homes, and remaining in debt to EDF for most, if not all, of their lives.

The group No Dash for Gas described the action as “legal bullying” designed “to shut down protest, chill dissent and prevent effective action in the UK against climate change”. It seems that ‘legal bullying’ has caught on, and is being used to quell resistance and protest on an increasingly large scale.

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