Fliering bans, bag searches and hired security guards at the Harold Wilson lecture (1.11.17): Our Open Letter to Bradford University Vice Chancellor, Brian Cantor

UPDATED 10/1/2018 Bradford University response (Letter to Kirklees Campaign against Climate Change 10 January 2018)

ORIGINAL POST 17/12/2017

Below is a letter in which we asked questions about how Bradford University handled our attendance of Drax CEO Dorothy Thompson’s lecture on 1st November.

We requested that the Vice Chancellor replied within two working weeks of us contacting him and explained that we’d publish our letter and any reply from 16th December.

The Vice-Chancellor didn’t reply to our letter. We’ll post any reply if it arrives.

The letter follows:

Dear Vice Chancellor, Brian Cantor,

I was part of a group of people who attended the Harold Wilson lecture by Dorothy Thompson, the outgoing CEO of Drax. We joined the event to raise awareness of the environmental damage caused by Drax’s burning of both coal and biomass. Specifically:

  • Studies show that the climate impacts of cutting down trees for biomass electricity are no better than those of coal when looked at over a period of many decades – i.e. during the crucial period when global carbon emissions must be rapidly cut.
  • Burning wood and coal both release pollutants into the air, including nitrogen oxides and particulates. Drax’s air pollution was estimated to cause 590 deaths a year in 2013, and wood dust from biomass causes health problems for workers.
  • Drax receives huge subsidies for burning this imported wood- about £1.5 million per day.
  • These subsidies, in turn, have allowed Drax to remain open and continue to burn coal – about 2.7 million tonnes in 2016.

We distributed fliers before the event along with a bank of questions to challenge Dorothy Thompson during the question and answer session.  You can see the flier and the questions on the Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change website.

We were disappointed by Bradford University’s response to our action. Bradford University announced bag searches on the morning of the event and we were prevented from distributing fliers outside the lecture theatre (albeit somewhat belatedly). I was not allowed to take my bag into the lecture even though it had been searched. In light of our conversations with the security guard for the event, we have good reason to believe that Bradford University hired him for the event because we were attending.

These measures were initiated despite the fact that we communicated with the event organisers in the days before the event, that we re-assured them of the nature of our plans (plans which we were completely honest about) and in spite of the fact that event organisers raised no objections to us fliering in their reply. (I’ve attached this email exchange but have edited them to protect the privacy of the person involved. I’m sure you’ll be able to locate these emails. If not, I will be happy to forward them unedited. [Bradford University emails])

We completely understand why Bradford University would want to safeguard the speaker and attendees of such an event and would want to ensure that protest did not prevent the event from taking place. What we do not understand is why Bradford University would also want to prevent any form of awareness-raising that poses no threat to safety or the viability of the event. (We distributed many fliers but this was not because Bradford University allowed it. It was presumably because Bradford University took some time to realise what we were doing and to communicate with security, before stepping in to prevent it. This was a surprise to us, given that Bradford University had made no indication that fliering would be a problem in their emails to us on 30/10/17 and 1/11/17.)

We would have thought that if Bradford University wanted to prevent a disruptive or dangerous protest it would have wanted to have been seen to be facilitating peaceful, respectful, open and completely non-disruptive protest. Other attendees of the lecture who had nothing to do with our action told us they were surprised and disappointed that Bradford University had prevented us from providing an alternative viewpoint on Drax power station to the one they were about to hear from Dorothy Thompson.

We thought that universities that were confident places that fostered debate, discussion and exchange of contradictory views. By coincidence, shortly after this event, we were interested to read about the debate on ‘safe spaces’ and ‘brave spaces’ in universities in the UK and the United States. As you may know, John Palfrey, a former professor and vice dean at Harvard Law School, has proposed that controversial views should be able to be expressed at places in universities in order to protect free speech.

It was interesting that Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham said on the Today programme on 4th November, “The job of a university is about truth. You get to truth by challenging truth openly with argument. We’re about hoping people learn how to think not what to think. We’re about the …liberal arts tradition of exploring truth, clashing ideas, out of which good truth emerges.”

The irony, it seems to me, is that our action at Bradford University in no way threatened free speech. Rather, our actions were promoting free speech and debate and it was the actions of Bradford University that threatened free speech and sought to prevent the ‘clashing ideas’ which Sir Anthony Seldon spoke of three days later.

The same item on the Today programme featured Alison Scott Baumann, professor at SOAS. She gave an example of a recent talk by Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador to the UK at SOAS and the successful protest which accompanied it. Alison Scott Baumann said, “He spoke freely, he took questions. At the same time students were protesting because they were concerned about the policies he represents.” This well-balanced and confident approach contrasts markedly with the apparent approach of Bradford University on 1st November.

We are all fully aware that Bradford University was legally entitled to behave in the way that it did on 1st November. However, we would be interested to know whether you think that behaving in this way is consistent with the University’s role in promoting debate and exchange of ideas, whether behaving in this way improves its image with students and the public and whether behaving in this way will encourage campaigners in the future to be open and clear about their events, to communicate honestly with Bradford University staff about their plans and to organise events that represent minimal disruption.

Please could you contact me by Friday 15th December to answer these questions?

  1. Are you satisfied with the conduct and approach of Bradford University staff on the evening of 1st November particularly in the light of Kirklees Campaign Against Change’s honest communication with them prior to the event?
  2. Do you think that Bradford University’s treatment of people who are raising awareness of important issues like this is consistent with the role of universities in (amongst other things) promoting enquiry, debate and freedom of speech?
  3. Would you agree that Bradford University’s response to an action which was non-disruptive, openly promoted and honestly promoted is likely to discourage actions of a similar nature and more likely to encourage secrecy, lack of openness with Bradford University and more disruptive protests?

I look forward to reading your response to my questions. Please be aware that Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change intends to distribute this message (including the documents I have attached) and either your response or your lack of response from Saturday 16th December. This will include putting it on their website www.kirkleescampaignagainstclimatechange.wordpress.com.

Kind regards,

Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change



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