Breaking the tradition of student protests

Editorial: strict house rules don't make the university safer

actie binnenplein UB protest gaza foto DUB
Protest in the library's courtyard on May 8. Photo: DUB

"Shame on you,” a group of demonstrators shouted in front of the Administration Building on May 13. It was a large group of students and teachers who were there to call on the Executive Board to take the demands of pro-Palestine protesters seriously. But they also wanted to express their disapproval of the police interventions that put an end to the demonstrations of the previous week. The university administration asked the mayor to summon the riot police.

The protest in front of the Administration Building went on without any incidents. People chanted slogans, some made speeches, and the security guards made sure that no protesters got inside the building. However, one of the Executive Board members came out to talk to them. This seems to be the only form of protest that the university still allows.

Last week, the university's president told the protesters that they should follow the house rules, which up until then, were unknown. The Executive Board referred to these rules repeatedly in its emails to all students and staff, with a link to a PDF document.

Breaking with History
The house rules are quite strict and break with the history of student protests in the Netherlands. It is now forbidden to occupy buildings without the university's permission, protests should always be registered first, and they may not disturb any educational or research activities. Furthermore, the speeches during the protests may not be intimidating, aggressive or damaging – though the university does not specify what it means by that. Some of the rules are about details like protesters not being allowed to cook food on the university's premises, distributing flyers and stickers, or using sidewalk chalk. Last but not least, protesters are not allowed to cover their faces, which is in line with a law prohibiting this at schools.

It makes sense to have a set of rules and activists that damage the university's property should be stopped. However, these rules limit the right of assembly to a minimum. UU's rules came after Jouke de Vries, the interim chair of the association of Dutch universities (UNL), declared in a visit to The Hague that universities were working on a joint "protest protocol". The document, which has since been released, is very similar to the rules announced by UU. Earlier this year, the Dutch Parliament passed a motion saying that universities could forbid demonstrations altogether as well as establish a temporary mandate to show an ID. These regulations were meant as a means to prevent antisemitism. 

The decision to exclude occupations from the right of assembly is remarkable from a historical point of view. In the Netherlands, it is a tradition for students to occupy buildings when protesting. It started in the 1960s, when students called for more democracy. The strategy was repeated in subsequent years during demonstrations against the dictatorships in Chile and Argentina as well as against Apartheid in South Africa. Large-scale demonstrations and occupations also took place when the Bachelor's and Master's structure was introduced and when the basic student grant was abolished. In 2009, the Administration Building was occupied by people who were against the end of the university's print magazine, Ublad (which has become DUB. DUB stands for Digital University Magazine in Dutch, Ed.). But one doesn't need to look that far back to find examples of occupations. Last year, End Fossil: Occupy occupied the Minnaert building, at Utrecht Science Park. Ultimately, every generation of students has had an opportunity to spend the night in one of the university's buildings.   

Chaotic times
They are not allowed to do this anymore, at least not without permission. Are such strict rules a good idea to regulate student protests? That's the question. Last year, the Executive Board was proud that the occupation of the Minnaert building went so smoothly and that they didn't need to call the police. The occupiers could spend two nights there. "Things are pretty tense now and I'm afraid that universities will intervene much sooner. However, a year from now, it's not like they will immediately call the police to stop an occupation unless it's too chaotic," ponders the university historian Leen Dorsman.

The tension Dorsman refers to was visible these past few weeks. Using the house rules as justification, the university called the police to disperse protests three times in a single week. According to the university administration, the occupation of the library's courtyard on May 7 had to be dispersed because it was "too dangerous, also for the protesters themselves." They described the intervention as a loss and stated that they would have preferred not to do it. However, this is how things will go from now on: those who do not stick to the house rules can expect to be immediately confronted with measures that will lead to eviction. The university is also more willing to officially report people to the police than before.

Clear boundaries
The extent to which each university will adhere to the rules is not clear yet. This week, the universities of Maastricht and Nijmegen allowed students to sleep on their premises. Utrecht University, on the other hand, will probably continue to enforce the rules strictly. Is this restriction necessary? Does it ensure peace and respect, as the Executive Board says, or does it lead to more frustration and an escalation? Perhaps the situation wouldn't have gotten out of hand had the protesters been allowed to spend a night at the library's courtyard.

Moreover, it remains to be seen whether these house rules infringe on the right of assembly. According to Amnesty International, this law gives protesters much more room than the university is giving. This means universities would have to allow occupations and only intervene proportionally, when absolutely necessary. Still according to Amnesty, the refusal to adhere to house rules alone does not constitute grounds for infringing on the right of assembly. In addition, an ID check would interfere with the right to democracy. 

Janneke Gerards, Professor of Fundamental Rights at UU, confirms that occupations are considered a legitimate form of protest by the law establishing the right of assembly, which means that the way UU's house rules have been formulated is incorrect. This doesn't exclude the fact that the university is the owner of the buildings and therefore has the right to ensure that they are not damaged and remain accessible for educational and research activities. The mayor can only intervene in exceptional cases.

With these house rules, the university's policy pushes the boundaries of basic democratic rules, especially by not considering occupations as a form of demonstration. To add insult to injury, the house rules have been established unilaterally, without consulting the democratically elected representatives (University Council).