On Saturday 21st January 2012 the following email was sent to all students at the University of East Anglia (UEA):

A message to all UEA students from the Registrar and Secretary:

Facebook and other social media provide a wide range of valuable opportunities for you to find out about facilities available to you at UEA, enhance your learning through the exchange of ideas and views, comment on your UEA experiences and keep in touch with friends. However, you need to be aware that anything you post (however innocently intended) on your own blog, web page or on Facebook or similar sites, may, if it includes, for example, ill-judged views, inaccurate information, or personal remarks directed against others, be seen as potentially defamatory or libellous.

Any statement you publish may be legally actionable. Even comments which simply contain factual inaccuracies can potentially cause loss or damage to individuals or jeopardise their safety. You may be personally liable for the consequences.

You also need to remember that you remain subject to the University’s regulations covering acceptable standards of behaviour, the proper use of IT facilities, and harassment and bullying. In the event of a serious breach of these regulations, on Facebook or elsewhere, the University will not hesitate to take action which could lead amongst other things to withdrawal of your IT access, and to a fine or suspension (or even in the most extreme case to expulsion) under the University’s Code of Discipline for Students.

So, do think carefully before posting comments about others.

Brian Summers
Registrar and Secretary

First let me put this email in context. It comes at a time when senior management at UEA are the subject of widespread criticism for their handling of the School of Music closure. The decision to close the school was arrived at via an internal review undertaken in secret having consulted with no Music staff or students. Then last week FOI requests for emails between members of senior management that referenced the closure were rejected on grounds of ‘public interest’ prompting renewed public criticism.

It is quite clear from the wording and tone of the email that this is no friendly warning but instead represents a clear threat to students: criticise us and we will do everything in our power to punish you, both through the universities internal disciplinary procedures and the courts.

This appears to be part of a continued campaign by British universities to silence political dissent on campus. At the end of last year Sheffield and Birmingham universities both applied for and were granted injunctions that prohibited protest on any part of their campus. Sheffield later withdrew the injunction after uproar from the student body and the wider public. However Birmingham’s still remains in force and has attracted widespread condemnation including from Amnesty International, Liberty and the Index on Censorship. Of course this email is not nearly as serious as these examples but is nonetheless evidence of a worrying trend.

The ability to debate, discuss and criticise is an integral part of the university experience for many students. Universities have a responsibility to facilitate and encourage such behaviour even if they are the subject of the debate, discussion and criticism. This point is well made in a Universities UK publication “Freedom Of Speech On Campus Rights And Responsibilities In UK universities.”:

This role in promoting debate extends also to relations with students. Students have always been at the forefront of protest movements and campaigns and for a number of students their time at university is the period when their thinking is challenged and re-shaped whether in relation to politics, religion or other areas. This is a valuable part of university education as it is precisely through exposure to a wide variety of views that students have the opportunity to develop important skills in the analysis and refutation of accepted ideas, positions and modes of behaviour.

Not only is this email evidence of UEA management failing in their responsibilities as advised by Universities UK (the representative organisation for the UK’s universities) but also potentially contravening Section 43 of the Education Act 1986 which provides that:

persons concerned in the government of any establishment… shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.”

Freedom of speech does not include the right of students to make offensive or personal attacks on members of staff and the university would be right to assert that to be the case. However that is not the message that this email is intended to convey. At a time when universities are the subject of massive reductions in Government spending (cheered on by Vice Chancellors rubbing their hands at the prospect of charging £9k for the ‘privilege’ of an education) senior management are inevitably going to be the subject of criticism from students desperate to defend their universities from course closures, redundancies and spending cuts. Any attempt to prevent dissent, whether it be through the banning of protest on campus or through threats against students engaged in critical discussion of university decisions, must be rejected if we are to preserve what is left of what it means to be part of a university community.