Athens, Greece – University students in Greece are gearing up to fight an education bill they say will undermine freedom of speech on campus.
The conservative New Democracy government wants to create a new university police force with the power to arrest and charge those considered “troublemakers”.
While campus police would not carry guns, they could call in riot police and other reinforcements.
The government also wants to set up disciplinary councils with powers of suspension or expulsion of students.
But perhaps most controversially, students could face scrutiny for putting up posters or banners and for “noise pollution.”
“We fear the disciplinary measures of the bill, which essentially allow vigilantism on campus, and all forms of political expression are interpreted as offenses,” said Hara Mantadaki, a political science student at Panteion University of social and political sciences.
She spoke to Al Jazeera during a student protest against the measures, where loud music was played and banners were painted – routine events on Greek campuses.
“Even what we are doing here would not be allowed,” she said.
Later Thursday, students plan to protest the bill, which will be debated in parliament next week.
When it came to power in 2019, New Democracy abolished campus immunity to police entry, known as asylum, dating from the 1980s.
“People trying to avoid the police were preparing to enter these [university] buildings because the police were not allowed to enter them, ”said Angelos Syrigos, former professor of international law and now deputy minister of education responsible for adopting the new measures.
“The main problem is the people coming from outside, not the university students,” Syrigos told Al Jazeera. “I firmly believe that 90% of the problem will be solved with the introduction of checks on people entering university buildings. Police forces are needed for the remaining 10%. “
Many of the measures proposed by the government – like better lighting, surveillance cameras, portals with card readers, and campus security guards – are widely accepted by the university community.
“Security is not what it should be… [It] has been significantly reduced in recent years for financial reasons, ”Evangelos Sapountzakis, deputy rector of the Polytechnic of Athens, told Al Jazeera. “This results in acts of violence, thefts, etc. We need government money to strengthen security. “
Last year, intruders stole $ 200,000 in equipment from the Polytechnic. Sapountzakis says these are typical annual losses.
But the police created a bad impression as they gained the power to venture onto campuses at will.
“There were many times when riot police surrounded students and held them hostage inside campus. There have been occasions where tear gas was used outside the building and prevented us from entering, ”said Alexandra Vatopoulou, accounting student at Athens University of Economics and Business, who opposes the measures.
Last February, students filmed a policeman with a gun outside the AUEB.
“The policeman had come in plain clothes,” said Thanos Golomazos, a third-year management student who was present. “He stood out here and started to terrorize and scare people. When the students faced him, he pulled out a gun… he was the one who caused the incident.
The government insists that the violence on campus justifies a permanent police presence.
Last October, eight masked and gloved assailants entered the office of the Rector of the AUEB. They grabbed him by the neck, threatened him, smashed his computer, vandalized his office and uploaded a picture of him with a sign around his neck with an anarchist slogan.
In the past, faculty members have been attacked or locked in their offices.
Syrigos, the deputy education minister, was himself attacked in 2017 for asking three people to use posters instead of painting slogans on a university wall.
“My students and I arrested one of these people and handed him over to the police … it was the first time that a person from these groups went to court and was tried for these activities,” said Syrigos. He would like this action to be institutional and not personal.
Yet the professors and administrators who supported Syrigos at the time are now siding with the students.
“External security that does not respond to university authorities questions the freedom of the university environment,” said Sapountzakis, the deputy rector.
The government found itself politically isolated.
“The only thing the government succeeds in is to anger a vexed society and a student body worried about its future,” said Hara Kefalidou, shadow minister of education of socialist Kinima Allagis.
An emblematic confrontation
The immunity of Greek university campuses from the police dates back to November 1973, when the then ruling military leadership in Greece used the military and police to crush a student protest at the Athens Polytechnic. , just 300 meters (274 meters) from the AUEB.
Although no one was injured on campus, around three dozen people were killed on the night of the operation and in the days that followed.
The incident sparked a popular backlash against the ruling colonels, whose regime collapsed the following year. The students who began the dismantling of the colonels’ regime were idolized as the conscience of the nation, and many of the socialist politicians who came to power in 1981 were from the legendary “polytechnic generation”.
Once installed, they passed a law prohibiting police entry into campuses.
The clashes of November 17, 1973 have since become an annual spectacle, with students and anarchists raining Molotov cocktails on police and setting up roadblocks around the Polytechnic.
In November 2019, the rector of the AUEB tried to prevent a student assembly that was to plan that year’s anniversary, by closing the campus for a week. The students broke the padlocks and still held their assembly.
“As we were about to start, we saw riot police, who are normally parked at the back of the building, attacking the students,” said Golomazos, the management student.
Although designed to prevent a repeat of the events of 1973, the police intervention has become a strange re-enactment. The police took possession of the campus, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.
“In the days that followed, people came here to support us,” Golomazos said, perhaps unaware that the students of 1973 also received public support through the locked doors of the polytechnic.
But anarchists and those who had been released from prison used the campuses to escape arrest during clashes with police.
In 2011, it was a socialist government that partially abrogated asylum on campus, allowing the rector to invite the police on his own authority. The left-wing Syriza party restored it in 2017.
This bill offers Syriza a chance to improve its approval rating, said Kefalidou, the socialist politician.
“It is giving the kiss of life to extremists, in particular to [leftwing] Syriza opposition, to launch a cat and mouse game on university campuses. We don’t need this tension.
Syrigos remains firm, however. “[Syriza’s] The reaction is against what Greek society thinks, ”he told Al Jazeera. “It will therefore be a very good opportunity for the government to show its big difference compared to the opposition parties on an issue which has the support of the vast majority of Greek society.