Birmingham wins court battle over pro-Palestinian encampment

Mariyah Ali, a Muslim undergraduate student, argued that ending the protest would infringe her rights under the Equality Act

July 10, 2024
Palestinian flags fly
Source: iStock/Cineberg

The University of Birmingham has won its court battle against a student who claimed her beliefs were being censored by the closure of a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus.

The institution was seeking a possession order against an encampment situated on land on its Edgbaston site, which has been occupied by protesters since early May.

Mariyah Ali, a 20-year-old British Pakistani undergraduate student, was the only named defendant. She argued that, as she was a Muslim, the protest was a manifestation of her strongly held philosophical belief in Palestinian liberation and was therefore protected by the Equality Act.

Lawyers representing Ms Ali argued that the protest was peaceful and had legitimate aims, and said that potential disruption was “modest” because tuition had ended for the summer.

However, a High Court judge found that the student had “no real prospect” of successfully showing that the university had discriminated against her or breached its public sector equality duty.

The court found that there was no evidence that the university terminated Ms Ali’s licence to use its land or brought these proceedings because of her beliefs, so she had no prospect of establishing discrimination.

Along with other UK institutions, Birmingham has turned to the courts to remove the encampmentswhich first sprung up across the country in late April in response to a mass movement in the US.

Oliver Edwards, a solicitor for Hodge Jones & Allen, which represented Ms Ali, said she was considering an appeal.

“Naturally, my client is disheartened by this judgment, but she remains committed to her cause,” Mr Edwards said.

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“Protests at universities have a long tradition in democratic society and we maintain that the university is breaching our client’s fundamental human rights.”

Birmingham had already succeeded in removing protesters from another encampment on campus in June. At the time, Adam Tickell, Birmingham’s vice-chancellor, said recent actions – including the intimidation of staff and the vandalising of campus properties – had created a “hostile environment” for some.

According to recent reports, just a dozen of the 36 encampments across the UK are still active, with many of those battling their universities in the courts.

Birmingham welcomed the court's decision, but said bringing legal action was "not a decision taken lightly".

"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," said a spokesperson.

"We acknowledge that some students and staff may wish to take part in protests about issues that matter to them, and have always respected their right to do so within the law. In its judgment, the court recognised that the university’s freedom of speech process is robust and has a long track record of supporting a wide range of opinions to be expressed."

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