A Tents Standoff At Trinity College Dublin

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Felice Basbøll reports on Trinity College Dublin’s pro-Palestine encampment and what it means for free speech and the death of institutional neutrality*

Last week, the students’ union at Trinity College Dublin, inspired by their counterparts at Columbia University and elsewhere, began their encampment on Trinity grounds and blocked access to Trinity’s main tourist attraction, the long room library and the historic Book of Kells, to protest Trinity’s ties to Israel.

They set up on Friday evening during the end-of-exams party at the on-campus bar, but on Saturday morning, campus was all but deserted. Exams were over, and because of security concerns, access to campus was restricted to Trinity students. Only the group of protesters were around, drinking their morning coffee, painting banners and tending to the blockade. Some came over and asked why I was there, but otherwise protesters had been instructed not to speak to people about the protest – which seems rather odd if the protesters’ aim is to convince others to support them. I was only allowed to take photos as long as I left out people’s faces.

Slogans and banners echo those from other protests across campuses at the moment: ‘Trinity funds genocide’, ‘Boycott Apartheid Israel’, ‘Trinity is complicit in genocide’. One tent even read ‘Seeking asylum is not a crime’.

On Saturday afternoon, people gathered outside for a solidarity protest with the encampment: ‘We know what it’s like to be partitioned, we know what it’s like to be occupied.’ Many Irish draw parallels between the Palestinian cause and the conflict in Northern Ireland. Out of the ivory tower, now sealed off from outsiders, the student protesters draped a banner with ‘Ollscoil na nDaoine’ (Irish for ‘The People’s University’) between two windows.

Since 7 October, Trinity has been silent on the conflict in Gaza and the on-campus reaction to it. For months, the students’ union has carried out various protests, from occupying buildings to blockading the Book of Kells, on multiple occasions.

Despite their current intense commitment to their own free-speech rights to protest by occupying buildings and blocking university income streams, the president of the students’ union, László Molnárfi, has made a concerted effort to delegitimise his critics. These range from right-wing students to liberal defenders of viewpoint diversity and those who were in full support of his style of progressive activism – UNTIL 7 October.

After a group of students organised to campaign for the depoliticisation the union, Molnárfi wrote that ‘We should not give any oxygen to the idea of “neutrality”’ and denounced the group as right-wing agitators. Last month, he similarly called a declaration in defence academic freedom a ‘far-right initiative.’ Anyone would be justified in questioning how principled the students’ union’s current stance on free expression really is. But the university should be held to a higher standard on academic freedom than the students’ union. Like so many other universities, Trinity has been struggling to take a consistent stance.

After months of appeasement, the provost made a statement defending the neutrality of the university and fined the students’ union €214,000 for the financial losses caused to the university by the disruptive protests. The university also warned students that fines could be incurred by causing ‘reputational damage’ to the university, a vague charge that will have a chilling effect on students legitimately critiquing the institution. Students should have every right to speak their minds, especially against their university, without regard to the reputational damage it might cause. However, it only took five days of camping on the lawn for the university to backtrack. After hyperbolic statements about the ‘serious health and safety hazard’ apparently posed by limited bathroom access, it was hard to perceive the protesters as a serious threat. But after just two rounds of negotiation, Trinity abandoned institutional neutrality and is now reviewing all ties to Israel. They also released a statement calling for ceasefire and stating that Trinity ‘condemns the onslaught in Gaza and supports International Court of Justice’s finding on genocide’ – even though the ICJ has not actually come to any finding on South Africa’s genocide claims.

Taking stances on controversial issues should be outside the bounds of the university and risks stifling debate. College administrators are not in any way in a position to make statements on behalf of the university community, let alone on matters of complex geopolitics, and students should not be able to pressure them into doing so by blocking college income. Instead of drawing a clear line between the commitment to students’ right to protest, and straightforward disruption of the everyday functioning of the college, Trinity has shown that it will concede if students blockade the Book of Kells. And with this precedent, we’ll probably see more such protests in the future.

But students have become accustomed to their universities taking explicit political stances and demand it wherever universities cling to their neutrality. In this regard, universities have very little ground to stand on – from the DEI bureaucracy to the Irish Athena Swan scheme, social justice comes first in determining research funding. Just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Trinity condemned the war and pledged support to those affected by the conflict. This caused little controversy at the time, but it set a precedent and, with each statement, Trinity moves further away from the ideals of the Vietnam-era Kalven Report on academic and student freedom, not least the notion that ‘the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic’.

Now, Trinity has fully committed to setting up a task force that will determine how to engage with ‘states that are in contravention with human rights’, it will be interesting to see what Trinity does about its proud and ‘continuously deepening’ engagement with its partnerships in China. And as protesters call for more collaboration with Palestinian institutions, one might question whether Hamas-run territories would pass the test.

The students’ union at Trinity is far from democratic, and the bombastic and one-sided larping of its officers on freedom of expression at the moment is worth every scoff it gets. But even if the free speech record of the Trinity Students’ Union has been dismal, clear lines need to be drawn. Causing reputational damage to your university is well within your rights as a student. Disrupting college activities is not.

After years of floundering around issues of academic freedom and protecting the free expression of all students, universities are incapable of taking a principled stance, and thereby fail all of their students. By trying to please everyone, Trinity has failed both to provide a principled defence of their students’ right to protest and sacrificed institutional neutrality at the first sight of intimidation.

*Felice Basbøll is an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin. This article originally appeared on the Academy of Ideas Substack – well worth supporting. We thank the author and the Academy of Ideas for permission to republish the article.

(Photo Credit: Felice Basbøll 2024)

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