Outrage is mounting in British academe after an English student was suspended from Cambridge University for more than two years after hijacking a visiting cabinet minister – with a poem.
The student was part of a wider protest against the politician’s speech but was singled out this month for what his supporters are calling “disgraceful” punishment. Supporters were expected to rally for him Friday and dozens of staff members and students have demanded that they be hit with the same penalty.
The unusual protest – in which the offending student read a lengthy poem, the lines of which were parroted in the “human microphone” style – was followed by a sit-in and forced David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, to abandon his November speech.
The nearly 12-minute condemnatory poem told Mr. Willetts the students had been “fools” to take him at his word and claimed “your gods have failed.” The message included the rhetoric of the Occupy movement and students claimed victory after the event was derailed.
The fallout was severe.
The university’s counsel reportedly sought a one-term suspension for the main speaker but the institution’s court of discipline opted to bar the student for seven terms, until the fall of 2014.
Amid growing furor at Cambridge, a campus newspaper has identified the man as Owen Holland, a doctoral student in English.
Mr. Holland is keeping his head down but supporters are voicing their anger online.
A public petition had garnered more than 3,000 signatures since Wednesday. Many of those signing included harsh criticism of Cambridge leaders. “Ludicrous attack. Prepare for battle!” wrote one person.
More nuanced comments elsewhere in the blogosphere included those from people who are not ideological fellow travellers but are still worried about the punishment’s effect on free speech.
“I may disagree with Holland politically, but it’s obvious that this sentence is far, far too long,” said one person at a site calling for support. “Even though Holland’s actions merited some kind of sanction, grossly disproportionate punishment like this risks chilling legitimate political expression.”
But Mr. Holland’s online detractors are equally firm. “Everyone has the right to free speech,” said one person, identifying as ‘Saddened Parent’. “We also have the right to ‘free listening’... who are these to take away our right to hear?”
Even the quality of the poetry came in for criticism from those who prefer a more quaint style. “His poem didn’t even rhyme,” wrote a person. “The whole country must think we haven’t taught him anything.