The Young Academy response to the UNL directive on student protests at universities

June 13, 2024

In May 2024, Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) and Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH) published a directive on protests at research universities and universities of applied sciences. The directive outlines a set of basic principles that apply for protests at universities across the Netherlands.

The Young Academy wishes to express its concern regarding this directive. While it states that universities “wholeheartedly support” the right to demonstrate, the directive risks having a chilling effect on protesters. Thereby it contradicts the spirit of universities, which are places of public reason and have a fundamental responsibility to safeguard the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, and demonstration as much as possible.


We call on UNL to revise its directive and encourage university boards to adopt a framework that upholds the rights of protestors while fostering an environment of open, pluralistic dialogue. Such a framework should

  1. Reaffirm universities’ responsibility to protect the right to protest;
  2. Recognise universities as places of public reason and pluralistic dialogue; 
  3. Adopt a proactive approach to facilitating dialogue within the university community on complex and contentious issues.

 

1. Protecting the right to protest

The right to protest is a fundamental right that plays a crucial role in a pluralistic and liberal-democratic society. As such, it is enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution of the Netherlands as well as in the European Convention on Human Rights. While peaceful demonstration is, in principle, allowed, the right to protest is not absolute and may sometimes be restricted for legitimate reasons, such as to protect public health or prevent violence or disorder.

In general, restrictive measures taken before, during and after demonstrations can be seen as curtailing the fundamental right to protest. These restrictions include prior notification, directives from authorities, police action, and the prosecution of demonstrators. It is not possible to determine in abstract terms what is permitted when exercising or restricting the right to protest. Rather, it is imperative to always protect and facilitate the fundamental right to protest to the greatest extent possible. Any restrictions must be necessary and proportionate to the specific circumstances of a given case. A chilling effect that deters individuals or groups from exercising their right to protest in the future must be avoided.

While university grounds and buildings are not public places in a legal sense, that does not diminish the applicability and importance of the right to protest. On the contrary: universities must respect and facilitate this right whenever possible. House rules may be established, but they should be flexible enough to respond to the unique context of every demonstration. Such rules should also not legitimise interference with demonstrations outside university premises.

Moreover, a university is not a typical non-public place like any other. Its unique role as an institution of learning and pluralist dialogue requires it to uphold and actively support the right to protest within its grounds.

2. Universities as places of public reason and pluralist dialogue

In addition to providing evidence-based knowledge to society, universities should, in their societal role, facilitate pluralist dialogue. Their institutional purpose is precisely to act as public spaces and laboratories of ideas, carving out room for debate and reasoned disagreement. Especially on controversial and contentious issues such as the ongoing war in Gaza.

University management has the responsibility to be impartial, but not apolitical. Protest, including civil disobedience, serves as a form of public teaching and learning, compelling all involved (including management) to engage with one another’s perspectives and arguments.

Our universities are not merely degree-awarding bodies striving for efficiency; they are bastions of learning. They teach students to think and engage critically with real-world problems as well as institutional power, and they should nurture, facilitate, and protect these processes. In doing so, universities have a responsibility to show that conflicts can be resolved by deliberation and debate rather than violence or enforcement. This requires restraint by university management in calling police to campus to end peaceful protests or occupations.

Curtailing or criminalising protest makes participation too risky for many in our community. It also risks marginalising reasonable voices, which, in turn, may lead to escalating conflict and violence. The resulting “Us vs Them” perception between university management on the one hand and students and staff on the other hinders inclusive and meaningful debate.

3. Assuming a proactive role in facilitating dialogue about complex issues

In line with their core mission, universities should proactively create opportunities for meaningful dialogue, demonstrating that differences of opinion and pluralist viewpoints can coexist. This involves embracing and actively supporting debate between students, staff, and management – all of whom, after all, make up the university (see also this plea in NRC). Instead of relying on a narrow set of reactive and mostly restrictive responses, university management should adopt a broader set of proactive strategies to engage with the concerns of staff and students. This can be done in more productive ways, for instance by facilitating lectures or by actively encouraging students and staff to organise debates and other activities on controversial topics – but also by participating in such debates and engaging with the arguments and views put forward.

This would ultimately foster a university environment where management, staff, and students can collectively address and resolve contentious issues. We expect that such a shift in perspective will be beneficial for addressing other topics within universities, potentially having positive effects beyond the current protests, as well as broader relevance beyond universities. After all, as unique places of disagreement, discussion, and pluralist dialogue, universities should be able to demonstrate that diverse views can coexist and that peaceful dialogue on difficult and contentious issues is indeed possible.

Call to uphold pluralism and the right to protest

Diverging viewpoints and political pluralism are persistent realities of liberal-democratic systems that should not be deplored. Instead, they should be celebrated as the outcome of enduring and resilient academic institutions that safeguard this principle. We therefore call on our universities – management, staff and students – to uphold their role as places of public reason and pluralist dialogue, actively supporting the right to protest and fostering an environment where diverse and clashing viewpoints can be expressed and debated, which is essential for safeguarding pluralistic societies and democratic political systems.

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Telefoon: 020 551 0867
E-mail: 
dja@knaw.nl

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