Political debate, dissent and demonstration have long been seen as almost vital ingredients of the student experience but law, practice and technology have moved on a great deal since the sit-ins and marches of the 1960s and 80s.
Criminal offences such as aggravated trespass now have the potential to impugn and imprison even the most peaceful demonstrators who leave people and property completely unharmed. Policing tactics such as the infamous "kettling" technique of effectively imprisoning people en masse for hours on end and sophisticated CCTV can make direct activism a far more physically and legally risky occupation than ever before.
These innovations create obvious challenges for students but also significant dilemmas for the police and university authorities. The policing of the G20 demonstrations, including the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson still haunts the Metropolitan Service over a year on. Those events, and indeed the controversy surrounding subsequent student fees protests towards the end of last year, seem to have prompted a great deal of debate and reflection within the force.
However, this new UCU conference motion suggests that it may be time that educational institutions themselves paused for thought. Should a university or college treat every minor incident of criminal damage on campus as a matter for the police rather than the proctor or dean? How many promising political careers of right and left would have been cut short if every Bullingdon jape or peace slogan on a wall had resulted in criminal prosecution?
Just because you hold photographic images (whether on a database or CCTV footage), capable of identifying any member of your student body, does that mean you should readily turn them over to the police - with or without a warrant - for minor offences commonly associated with protest?
Few would argue that students who engage in violent action should get special treatment and be kept from court but educational authorities would be wise to reflect on just how ready they should be to blurr the lines between education and law enforcement. Few of us would call the police if a teenage son or daughter raided the drinks cabinet or graffitied a bedroom wall. We might look to our own disciplinary sanctions so as to instill responsibility without jeopardising our child's future. Shouldn't trusted places of learning feel the same protective way about the understandably aggrieved young generation whose dwindling life chances they hold in their hands?
Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty
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