A belated reply from Bradford University to our open letter about bag searches and fliering bans: Our analysis

Way back on 1/12/17 we wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Bradford University about the way in which campaigners were prevented from distributing fliers outside the public lecture by Dorothy Thompson, CEO of Drax power station. (Our open letter to Bradford University Vice-Chancellor and the original newstory.)

We finally received a reply from Bradford University on Wednesday 10th January – six weeks after we sent our letter- but just one day after we contacted the then Universities Minister, Jo Johnson about our experience at Bradford University (Letter to Kirklees Campaign against Climate Change 10 January 2018 – as before, we’ve removed identifying details of the sender to protect privacy).

We don’t think it’s a very thoughtful or reflective response. In particular:

  • It includes a factually incorrect statement: that fliering was stopped by staff in a reception area. There was a reception area adjacent to the lecture theatre where attendees waited and were offered refreshments. When we were approached by staff and told we could not distribute fliers we were not in that area. We weren’t even outside that reception area. We were in spacious landing area with two sets of doors between us and the reception area (and, of course, we were not in any way impeding access.to the reception area.)
  • Bradford University staff did not tell us that there was an issue with the place where we were fliering and invite us to flier in a preferred space. They told us we were not allowed to flier. Full stop.
  • The reply doesn’t address the issue of last minute announcements of bag searches nor does its reference to large bags needing to remain outside the lecture theatre address the issue that one of our team was told they could not take a small bag into the lecture theatre.
  • The suggestion that “the range of speakers and events that take place throughout the year on the campus” is evidence of Bradford University’s commitment “to the principles you mention – promoting enquiry, debate and freedom of speech” is clearly (and perhaps deliberately) missing the point. Inviting a speaker to present controversial views and then actively preventing people from providing information from an alternative point of view (including a list of referenced questions that people might want to ask the speaker during the Q&A section) is suppressing enquiry, debate and freedom of speech.
  • The reply doesn’t address the final question we asked them which was ‘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?’

Bradford University can approach debate and awareness-raising in any way they choose. We’re content to share our experiences and to raise awareness of the approach of Bradford University in order that individuals and groups who wish challenge or protest controversial speakers can make an informed decision about the approaches that may be most and least successful in the future.

The issue of freedom of speech in universities has been very much in the news recently, including, on Boxing Day, Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s suggestion that the new ‘Office for Students’ could fine universities that do not protect freedom of speech.

As we said above, we wrote to Jo Johnson on 9/1/18 to share our experience at Bradford University and Our open letter to Bradford University Vice-Chancellor and to ask him to reply to two questions.

  1. If you believe in the liberal values of open debate of contrasting views,  do you believe that universities have a responsibility, not only to allow controversial views to  be expressed, but also to facilitate protest that enables those views to be challenged?
  2. If you do not believe that universities have a responsibility to facilitate protest against controversial views, would that you agree that the effect of these fines would be to suppress debate and free speech and simply to impose views that are, at best controversial, at worst, offensive and dangerous?

Jo Johnson was replaced by Sam Gyimah as Universities Minister in the re-shuffle on 9/1/18. We’ll share any reply – or lack of reply- from him shortly after 23/1/18.


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