Hostage situation? We didn’t even have keys

Sussex registrar’s court claims disputed by student protesters. Melanie Newman reports

May 3, 2010

Students at the University of Sussex have accused its registrar of exaggeration after he claimed that he had been held hostage during an occupation earlier this year.

On 3 March, students occupied the university’s main administrative building in protest against staff redundancies.

On the same day, the university sought and obtained a court injunction banning the students from the premises, and the protesters were ejected by Sussex Police. The injunction documents state that about 100 students were involved: the students themselves put the figure at 300.

In a witness statement to the High Court, John Duffy, Sussex’s registrar and secretary, says the students “forced entry” to Sussex House, “locked key members of staff including [me] into their offices against their will” and caused damage to the building.

The statement adds that the students had “sought no formal discussion for dialogue with the university”, besides an email demand.

“They have not sought to use the well-established channels and processes for student involvement in the running of the university,” it says.

Six protesters are currently subject to disciplinary procedures at Sussex.

The occupiers have posted an online “dossier” of witness statements that contradict the registrar’s claims. They maintain that they entered the building through a fire escape opened from the inside.

“Upon entering the building, protesters distributed a leaflet to all staff offices, making it clear that they were free to leave at any point, and suggesting routes of exit…there was no intention to lock office doors – nor could we have done so…we did not have a key,” they say.

The suggestion that the protesters had not sought formal dialogue with Sussex’s management was a “fundamental misrepresentation of the campaign and an effort to isolate direct action taken by the movement from the many other types of campaigning that we are engaged in”, the protesters add.

“We have used a variety of means to draw attention to the management’s damaging proposals. Students within the campaign are engaged in letter-writing, petitions, participating in meetings and open forums; we are doing all we can to communicate with management. Many of those involved in the protest at Sussex House have also been engaged in these less visible activities for months.”

A Sussex spokeswoman said: “The university stands by all the statements it has made in relation to the illegal occupation of Sussex House and by the actions it has taken to protect the interests of all its staff and students.

“The full details of the injunction and witness statements were placed openly in the public domain when they were served on 3 March.”

No legal challenge had been made to the injunction, she added.

The University and College Union at Sussex has warned that the university faces a second round of strikes on 5 May if it pushes ahead with plans to make more than 100 staff redundant.

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