Six students at Lancaster University could be jailed for staging a protest on university premises against the "commercialisation of university research".
The case is prompting concerns that this could set a precedent in dealing with such student activism.
But Lancaster said that university staff felt intimidated by the student protesters, some of whom had no right to be on campus.
The students, dubbed the "George Fox Six" after taking part in protests at a university-sponsored "corporate venturing" conference held at Lancaster's George Fox Building last September, face a maximum sentence of three months in prison.
The six - two undergraduates, two postgraduates, one former student from Lancaster and a student from an affiliated institution - have claimed that the court summonses, issued in April, took them by surprise. They will be pleading not guilty to the charges of aggravated trespass.
Joanne Moodie, a 26-year-old PhD student, told The Times Higher that she was "gob-smacked" to learn that the university had requested that the Crown Prosecution Service press charges for what she insisted was a peaceful protest against university links with arms dealers and other companies.
"It's a complete overreaction," she said. "We decided to hold a protest about the nature of the companies at the conference and raise our objections to the commercialisation of university research."
Ms Moodie, undergraduates Anthony Ayre and Rachel Jackson, postgraduate Keith Richardson, St Martin's College student Matthew Wilson and Lancaster graduate Rhiannon Westphal have been charged. Ms Moodie claims that she and others took banners and leaflets into the George Fox auditorium before they were ejected by security staff and continued their protest outside.
The university maintained that staff and representatives of the companies at the conference, which included the venture capitalists Carlyle Group and BAE Systems, felt intimidated by the protesters, adding that some of them had no right to be on campus as they were not students at the university.
"The university will not tolerate this kind of activity on campus and where evidence suggests this has happened, we will take action," the university said.
Human rights group Liberty, Scientists for Global Responsibility, which represents 600 scientists, and Lancaster University Students Union (LUSU) and the National Union of Students have pledged their support for the students while voicing concerns about the implications for student protests.
Joe Rukin, NUS national executive officer, said: "Our view is that the reaction of Lancaster University is ridiculously heavy-handed, and they have overreacted completely.
"The decision to prosecute has potentially wide-ranging consequences for the right of students to express dissent about the actions of their universities."
Dwayne Branch, president of LUSU, told The Times Higher that the claims that some of the students had no right to be on campus were "nonsense" and expressed regrets that the university's illustrious history of activism "should have come to this".
"Lancaster University has a whole page on its website dedicated to student activism, telling the story of days gone by when students held protests against Vietnam, blockaded university house and stood up for what they believed in," he said. "It's unfortunate today that the university can only pay lip service to student activism."
The case is due to be heard at Lancaster Magistrates' Court on September 26.
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