University of Nottingham secures High Court order against pro-Palestinian protest camp

Shot from afar of rally held by Nottingham Encampment for the Liberation of Palestine at their encampment at the University of Nottingham's Jubilee Campus, with people standing surrounded by grass, tents and trees
-Credit: (Image: Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)

The Palestine encampment at the University of Nottingham is set to be evicted after a High Court judge ruled in the university's favour. Justice Adam Johnson informed the involved parties of his decision on Monday, July 8 after a hearing in London on Friday, July 5.

Former student River Butterworth, 24, from Warwickshire, the sole named protester in the Nottingham legal challenge, argued a court order helping to “evict” the encampment would be a “disproportionate interference” with their free speech and protest rights.

Lawyers for the universities accused protesters of trespassing on private land, bringing a risk of public disturbance, causing disruption and financial loss as well as being allegedly linked to “unlawful activities”.

A camp spokesperson said: "In one way it's awful. We saw that change was happening. The university was willing to support Palestinians more. It was improvement. We were getting there. It's a shame to see a bit of that pressure taken away from us. But we were prepared for this and we still have our voice and our movement. We'll keep pushing."

In the courtroom on July 5, the university's lawyers asked the judge to issue a possession order. They argued that the protesters were trespassing on private land and that the camp has been linked with “disruption and unlawful activities” as well as health and safety concerns.

The Advanced Manufacturing building, opposite the campsite, is home to the University's engineering faculty and is the focal point of the University's relations with arms companies BAE Systems and Rolls Royce - but it has been closed since the encampment was set up in early May.

But Owen Greenhall, representing the encampment's defendant River Butterworth, 24, from Warwickshire, argued the encampment symbolises the many thousands of displaced Palestinians”, had not caused “any substantial disruption, disturbance or harm” and had "licence" to protest on the university land. He said the court order was unnecessary and not justified.

Katharine Holland KC, for the university, said that the university faced had “a duty to safeguard university assets” and that the legal action would "not remove the rights of the defendants to freedom of expression or to undertake a legitimate protest".

After the news of the ruling, a statement from the encampment online said the university "had done nothing to ensure that their students feel heard". Encampment members hosted an emergency rally, on Wednesday, July 10 outside the camp to inform visitors of the action and to protest.

The spokesperson confirmed that the encampment was expecting to be served with its latest eviction notice on Wednesday, July 10. The spokesperson also confirmed the camp would co-operate with bailiffs peacefully if they arrived, in keeping with its ethos.

A spokesperson for the University of Nottingham said: "The University of Nottingham upholds freedom of speech and our priority is, and always will be, to ensure that opportunities to engage in debate or protest are safe, inclusive, dignified, respectful and responsible.

"The order from the court will allow us to ensure that we can take action should the need arise to protect the health and safety of our university community on campus and to minimise disruption to students and staff accessing the teaching, learning and research spaces they require."

The University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham took separate legal action against “persons unknown” and two named activists as part of bids to the end occupation of areas where tents had been set up since early May.

In two written rulings on Tuesday, a judge granted summary possession orders – a legal step to decide the cases in the universities’ favour without a full trial. Mr Justice Johnson concluded that protesters had “no real prospect” of showing that the universities had breached their duties or that an order would be incompatible with their human rights.

The orders cover the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus, where there were around 10 to 15 tents near the Advanced Manufacturing Building.

They also cover the University of Birmingham’s “Green Heart” outdoor area on its Edgbaston campus – the site of more than 80 tents last month – as well as its Exchange Building in central Birmingham and the Selly Oak campus where there are no protests.

Over the course of two hearings in London last week, the judge was told that the camps were part of nationwide protests at British universities, held in solidarity with demonstrations in North America and in support of people in conflict-torn Gaza.

Protesters, many of whom universities have been unable to identify, allege universities are “complicit” in the loss of life in Palestine and should “divest” from links to arms firms.

Muslim British-Pakistani student Mariyah Ali, 20, from Walsall, the only named defendant in the Birmingham case, said the legal action was a “censoring tactic” and discrimination against the “manifestation” of her religious and philosophical beliefs.

The judge said the evidence showed the universities were not trying to regain their land because of the protesters’ beliefs and that the legal action was the “least intrusive” way of achieving this.

He said there were “many other ways” activists could exercise their right to protest without occupying land, concluding that protesters were trespassing.

A University of Birmingham statement said: “The court’s decision will help us to ensure that all of our diverse community can go about their business and use the entirety of the university’s campus without feeling that there are parts of campus where they cannot go.”

It said it respected students’ and staff’s right to protest “within the law”, adding: “We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to free speech for the whole of the university community.”