Nottingham joins other universities in asking courts to help end protest camps

The University of Nottingham has become the latest academic body to ask the High Court to intervene in its bid to end a Pro-Palestinian protest encampment on its land.

On Friday, the university’s lawyers asked a judge to issue a possession order against “persons unknown” over its Jubilee Campus where tents were first erected in early May.

They argue protesters are trespassing on private land and that the camp has been linked with “disruption and unlawful activities” during open days last month as well as health and safety concerns.

Lawyers for the only named defendant in the legal action, 24-year-old River Butterworth from Warwickshire, argue a court order helping to “evict” the “peaceful” encampment would be a “disproportionate interference” with their free speech and protest rights.

The hearing in London comes a day after the University of Birmingham sought a similar High Court order against a pro-Palestine encampment at the “Green Heart” outdoor area on its Edgbaston campus.

It also follows 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 over its Mile End campus if protest encampments did not end.

Owen Greenhall, representing Mx Butterworth, said in written arguments that the camp was part of nationwide protests at British universities, held in solidarity with demonstrations in North America and in support of people in conflict-torn Gaza.

He said Mx Butterworth had joined the protest to encourage the university “not to be complicit in the loss of life in Gaza, and the commission of war crimes through the development and supply of arms and military equipment, academic research and collaboration with Israel”.

Protesters march with signs and Palestinian flags
Pro-Palestinian protests have taken place in Nottingham over the last few months, including marches during election campaigning (David Lynch/PA)

The barrister said the protest called for divestment from companies “complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine”, with the camp positioned near the Advanced Manufacturing Building where the university allegedly “conducts research for arms companies”.

Mr Greenhall said the encampment, currently of around 10 to 15 tents, “symbolises the many thousands of displaced Palestinians” and had not caused “any substantial disruption, disturbance or harm”.

Mx Butterworth was not a trespasser and had a “licence” to protest on university land, the court was told.

The defendant told the PA news agency they were suspended from their role as postgraduate officer of the students’ union due to participating in protests.

A court order was unnecessary and not justified, Mr Greenhall said, adding that the university had failed to comply with legal duties and its free speech policy.

Katharine Holland KC, for the university, said in written submissions that it faced an “unlawful occupational encampment” and had “a duty to safeguard university assets”.

She said the legal action “does not remove the rights of the defendants to freedom of expression or assembly or to undertake a legitimate protest” and that the university was not denying protesters the use of land “for any reason connected with their beliefs, policy or objectives”.

Israel-Hamas conflict
Similar encampments have been seen at other universities across the UK and US, such as Cambridge University, pictured, and Oxford (Joe Giddens/PA)

Ms Holland wrote: “The reality of the position here is that the occupiers have taken up occupation on an area of land and put up camps there in order to seek to force the University to surrender to certain demands.

“It is submitted that direct action of this nature is not – and should not be – within the scope of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘freedom of assembly’…”

In written arguments for a hearing in May, another university barrister, Michelle Caney, said protesters were “deliberately concealing their identities by wearing masks, balaclavas and hoods” and that security staff were diverted to the site to ensure health and safety.

She added: “The presence of the occupational protest has caused disruption and apprehension for staff and students, and in particular to members of the university’s Jewish Society.”

The hearing before Mr Justice Johnson ended on Friday, with the judge to issue a written ruling over the Birmingham and Nottingham cases at a later date.