The University of Sussex is to pay 22-year-old ex-student Michael Segalov £20,000.
They have also issued a public apology after he sued the institution for defamation of character.
The University have admitted that there was ‘no truth’ in their claim that, as one of the Sussex Five, Michael led an unlawful occupation and carried out acts of criminal behaviour.
In an article on the University website, University of Sussex Registrar John Duffy incorrectly said that the suspended protesters “were actively organising or leading…unlawful occupations”.
In a statement, which the University released last Thursday, they “apologise unreservedly” to Michael and confirmed that the Sussex Five “did not engage in any form of intimidation, theft, assault of a member of staff and/or damage to University property” as had been suggested in two university news bulletins dating from December 2013, the time of the occupations.
The Sussex Five were suspended in 2013 for their involvement in the occupation of Bramber House.
The protest was held as part of a campaign against privatisation on campus, as well as the campaign for free education.
Segalov responded to the court ruling saying: “I think it’s an extremely important precedent that students know they have this option to hold universities accountable.
“Any victory over managers is to be celebrated. I hope this acts as a deterrent to universities to make libelous statements about their students ever again.”
However, there is a certain sense amongst many initially involved that too much emphasis is being placed on Michael alone and, since the news of his compensation was announced, the issue of collectivism versus individualism has become controversial.
As Hichem Maafi, another of the Sussex Five along with Adriano Merola Marotta, Lewis Nielsen and Can Aniker, points out, “the outcome is that only Michael’s name got mentioned and only he got an apology.
“This is particularly worrying because it now kind of looks like, while the university said that Michael has not “engaged in any form of intimidation, theft, assault of a member of staff and/or damage to University property”, me and the others maybe did”.
Michael was the only one of the Sussex Five to sue for defamation.
In 2013, all five were reinstated in time to complete their exams and four of them appealed the university’s decision to suspend them.
In January of this year the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) ruled that these four should each receive payment of £2,500 and an apology, since the University did not “follow a fair procedure when considering whether to suspend Mr Segalov” and the others.
The fifth member, Can Aniker, “was not eligible for the OIA complaint” but, according to fellow Sussex Five member Adriano (who spoke on behalf of the four), said Can “received a payment, which came from our [payment], by everyone except Michael.”
Michael told The Badger that in fact “I checked my bank account and the money definitely left last week when I spoke to Can” and provided evidence which appeared to show he had indeed made a payment to Can.
In a statement released by Adriano but written with the agreement of the others, he said “the four of us remained oblivious to the possibility of suing the University in the first place… Clearly, information was withheld from us. 48 hours after the OIA ruling had been completed, we had the opportunity to file a defamation case against the University.
“The problem is that only one person (Michael) knew of this, who deliberately withheld this information from the rest of us.”
It is believed that the statute of limitations now prevents any further action.
While none of the other members of the Sussex Five question the political value of the recent ruling and the precedent which it sets for universities being accountable, Adriano concludes: “opportunistic individualism is a dangerous phenomenon in the student movement, which pits students against students in a never-ending rat-race of career building. Every action done by myself was with the political struggle in mind.”
Asked what he thought Michael should do with the money, he declined to comment.
The Guardian recently neglected to mention the wider context, but Michael points out that “these things are not in a vacuum. Student protests are all part of a wider movement of campaigns and consciousness around politics and of activists… these things are about building a collective of people.”
He thinks that the University’s choice to single out five participants as “leaders of a leaderless movement” is “firstly because the idea that there are not structured movements is alien to management” and secondly because “it’s an easy distraction from the issues you’re campaigning around; we were campaigning around privatisation but people started to focus on us. It’s also a way of scaring activists – not just within the university context. It’s something we see in unions, with the police, etc.”
Michael repeatedly reiterated that “those five people, the Sussex Five – including myself – were no different to hundreds of other people [involved in the campaigns].”
Of the OIA case, Michael says: “… the focus of that was whether universities can or can’t get away with doing certain things, like suspending us the way they did.
“To be blunt, there is a really worrying part of this which we still haven’t dealt with and that is how the university in 2013 took out an injunction that banned all forms of protest on campus if they didn’t have express permission from management.
“That is a worrying precedent… Because of time restrictions we weren’t able to challenge that, but I would imagine that if it happens again we’d be in a position to challenge it in the European Court of Human Rights.
Asked by The Badger if he thought the £20,000 payment should go back to campaigns such as Free Education Sussex who claim to stand for the ideals of the 2013 occupations or organisations like Defend the Right to Protest, which supported him, Michael said: “I won’t pretend I won’t use any of it to support myself whilst I continue with activism.
“When people sue police, universities, mayors there is no given answer. I think what’s important is that we get on and live our lives, but yes, I’ll be donating some to various campaigns.”
Sussex Five member Hichem said: “I think it is kind of difficult to claim the outcome as a victory for the whole student movement, because when we got suspended, it was the whole movement who stood behind us in order to get us reinstated.
“This [defamation case], however, was done on an individual basis so it almost ironically plays into the ideology of neo-liberalism, where everyone is for themselves.”
A current member of Free Education Sussex, who believes that they have been victimised by a different university, said: “I know how tough it is to be under attack by your own university, but I can’t help feeling like this is an individualistic way to deal with a collective problem.
“Other people have felt excluded by the way the situation has been handled.
“We need to fight together – and recognise that for every person that gets a pay-out there are others who get nothing at all.
“Hopefully, in the future, we can take on management without dividing ourselves.”
The issue on which none of the so-called Sussex Five seem to be divided is the value of the activism they were part of on campus, or the precedent which this sets down for future student activism.
Michael still thinks the initial protests were “definitely worth it… and I think they had a huge impact on a lot of people, especially in terms of developing new politically aware activists…” and Adriano agreed “everything I have partaken in under the banner of the anti-privatisation campaign was worth it.”
He added: “the private contracts for Catering and Estates will be up for tender, and I think it’s worthwhile continuing to fight against the private contract until all services are run in-house and to the benefit of Sussex staff.”
Freya Marshall Payne