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Comment: Social media and freedom of speech in universities

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.

  • Written by Cal Corkery
  • Category: Comment

Len’s honest truth: recovery starts with ending austerity

megaphoneUnite general secretary Len McCluskey has come out all guns blazing against the Labour leadership’s ignominious collapse into Osbornomics. After a week in which whatever backbone the Labour frontbench once had crumbled, his intervention is vital – and entirely correct.

The economic case against the government’s spending cuts is simple. If government cuts its spending, demand in the economy falls. If demand falls, firms sell less. Firms that sell less make redundancies and cut wages. Demand falls further. The entire economy becomes locked into a vicious downward spiral. Cutting in a recession makes the recession worse.

This is the macroeconomic mechanism that has been known for at least 80 years. It’s what the great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes described, writing during the Great Depression – attacking George Osborne’s slash-and-burn ancestors.

Yet McCluskey has been attacked by George Eaton, writing at the New Statesman, for failing to recognise the “changed economic reality”. Until he does, Eaton warns, he will not be an “honest participant in the debate”.

Fine. Let’s take the Coalition’s terms of the debate as our starting point. Even if shrinking the debt was an absolute economic priority, it is economically illiterate to think this can be done through spending cuts. Take Greece – an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. Greece, at the end of 2009, had a national debt of 130 per cent of GDP. Two years of aggressive austerity have followed. Greece’s national debt is forecast, this year, to hit 189 per cent of GDP. By squeezing the economic life out of the country, austerity has made the debt problem worse, not better.

On a less dramatic scale, the same process is at work in Britain. The deficit is worsening because Britain is heading back into recession. And Britain is heading back into recession because the cuts are starting to tear demand out of the economy.

It is the failure of the Coalition’s economic policy that has got us here. That is the “new economic reality”. Osborne, Cameron and Clegg may lack the wit to see this themselves. But there is no reason for the rest of us to follow their delusions.

A programme for recovery should start with ending austerity. In a recession, government should be spending, not cutting. That means a programme public investment to create sustainable jobs and rebuild the economy, with the interests of workers and wider society at its heart.

The complete reverse of, in other words, the Coalition’s current efforts. We have a hard fight ahead. But a mass movement against austerity is there to be built.

  • Written by James Meadway
  • Category: Comment

#yachtgate - a £60 million vanity project

Michael Gove today fell victim to the political kryptonite that are yachts. Like George Osbourne and Peter Mandelson before him, visiting Oleg Deripaska’s yacht in 2008, the latest marine based blunder to hit the right has demonstrated the detachment of the ruling clique. 

Gove asserted, in a letter to Jeremy Hunt and Nick Clegg, that the Queen’s diamond Jubilee must not be eclipsed by the Olympics. He spoke of the transient nature of the party at the palace, the proms and street parties across the country. In order to combat this, Gove concluded that the commission of a new Royal yacht, estimated to cost £60 million in 1997, was the only logical step forward.

The Education secretary also came perilously close to stating that the ‘vanity projects’ currently surging from Westminster were the remedy to the swathing economically fallacious cuts.  Egregious, abhorrent and absurd, the proposed yacht would be a ‘gift’ from the nation to reward the Queen for her ‘highly significant contribution to the life of the nation and the commonwealth’.

Billed as a mark of respect by renowned monarchist Gove, the letter once again highlights the capricious and insulting image portrayed by Cameron et al as the new party of the people. The tactless letter comes at a time where forecasts are predicting that the U.K. economy will slip back into recession this year seeing a further constriction on living standards.

If we were truly all in this together, we’d need a bigger yacht to save us from our titanic debt. 

To keep up with ‘yachtgate’ or to have your say search #yachtgate on twitter.


Life on the front line: working in social services

megaphoneI have been working with young people in the North east now for around 7 years. At first all was well with funding streams easy to access and projects being valued by local government with help from central government. The youth service was able to offer activities free of charge to young people during the school holidays, and on most, if not all occasions these opportunities were taken up by the most disadvantaged young people in our communities, and was their only means of some type of summer get away for them.

Youth Clubs opened on the dictation of need, fully staffed, by people who were offered any training required to gain more qualifications. Even young people were encouraged to take up apprenticeships within the sector, many coming through schemes to steer young people away from offending.

Now many clubs have just had to close, only a few remain, none can offer much in activities thus leaving the most needy young people kicking the streets during summer - the same streets that saw rioting in August 2011. Experienced staff are  being laid off, consigning many very well qualified workers to the dole. Connections ( young people's career advice) has been all but obliterated, despite youth unemployment of over 1 million.

But it does not stop there. My partner worked in an old people’s home. Many of the 35 residents are high dependency, yet there's only 3 staff to dress them, clean them, put them to bed, maintain the house, and do their laundry, all for only £6.20 per hour including nights.

While working with young people in care, I have also experience how the cuts are hitting the front line. Money is not available for adequate staffing, and again activities, as well as the use of more and more staff on an ad hoc basis, resulting in  low morale and a desire to leave. And this has an adverse effect on staff performance and can only impact on the emotional well being of the child. Managers are working longer and longer hours, doing the job of two, because the money is  no longer there to fund the appropriate management structures.

I can only  project a tiny snap shot on what is going on, but in my experiences this basket case of a Government is suffocating the life out of our social service sector.

  • Written by Youth Worker
  • Category: Comment

Doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight

A symbolic clock set up by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago in 1947 has been set one minute closer to the hour of nuclear Armageddon. The scientists say that the failure to halt climate change, develop sustainable energy sources and prevent nuclear proliferation leaves the world at five to midnight.

A statement by the Bulletin said that “Two years ago, it appeared that world leaders might address the truly global threats that we face. In many cases, that trend has not continued or been reversed…world leaders are failing to change business as usual.”

Tick tock goes the clock

The clock has been closer to midnight in the past, reaching two minutes to the ‘zero hour’ in 1953 after the US tested its first hydrogen bomb.  However at the end of the Cold War the clock was wound back to 17 minutes to midnight.

But the west has blown its peace dividend on the highest levels of military spending since the Cold War. US-Israeli brinkmanship with Iran, cheered on by the west, has put the threat of nuclear war back on the agenda.

“Inaction on key issues including climate change, and rising international tensions motivate the movement of the clock,” said Laurence Krauss at Arizona State University.

Jayantha Dhanapala, former United Nations under-secretary-general for Disarmament Affairs, added that, “failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, and North Korea on a treaty to cut off production of nuclear weapons material continues to leave the world at risk,” he said. “The world still has over 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the world's inhabitants several times over.”

Darkest before dawn?

But the Bulletin scientists (central to developing the devastating nuclear bomb) suggest that the Arab Spring, and a growing global pro-democracy movement offer light on the horizon.

"The Science and Security Board is heartened by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, political protests in Russia, and by the actions of ordinary citizens in Japan,” said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

“Whether meeting the challenges of nuclear power, or mitigating the suffering from human-caused global warming, or preventing catastrophic nuclear conflict in a volatile world, the power of people is essential,” she said. “Together, we can present the most significant questions to policymakers and industry leaders. Most importantly, we can demand answers and action."

  • Written by Dan Poulton
  • Category: Comment

Unison executives accept rotten deal on pensions

Unison's main service executives have today accepted the government's 'heads of agreement' as the basis for a deal on pensions. The executives of the union's local government and health sections met today and bucked the trend of unions rejecting the deals.
Yesterday, Unite rejected the same agreement in local government as Unison today accepted, recognising that the meagre concessions were inadequate. Last week, Unite's health sector unanimously rejected the NHS pensions deal, but Unison's group executive has today failed to reach a decision - it is putting the current offer to a members' ballot. Francis Maude, Danny Alexander and everyone in the Tory-led government will be breathing a sigh of relief.
This is a major setback for the whole strike movement. Unison's group executives are enabling the government's divide-and-rule strategy to work, by accepting shoddy deals and leaving other unions to fight on without the largest public sector union being part of further strike action. It has broken the fantastic unity and momentum which developed around 30 November, when over two million public sector workers walked out.
These decisions have come on the same day that Labour leader Ed Miliband has been widely reported as calling for us all to be 'realistic' about cuts. He is angling Labour even further to the right. The capitulation by Unison, a Labour-affiliated union led by officials who are loyal to Labour's leadership, dovetails with Miliband's push to persuade the whole labour movement to accept large chunks of the government's austerity agenda.
Within Unison, activists will be battling to overturn the decisions - any deals will be put to a ballot of members. Fortunately, many unions involved in the large-scale strikes and demonstrations on 30 November have rejected the government's proposed deal. Activists in these unions now need to pressure their leaders and executives to co-ordinate a day of strike action, bringing together the largest possible numbers in united action.
Thursday's TUC meeting, involving representatives of a range of public sector unions, is likely to be tense. TUC head Brendan Barber, along with Unison leaders, will be keen to avoid further co-ordinated strikes.
Lobby of the TUC on the pensions' dispute
Thursday 12th January - at 2pm outside Congress House, Great Russell Street, London

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

Liverpool F.C. - you reap what you sow


The sickening sight of Tom Adeyemi (Oldham defender) being reduced to tears by racist insults shouted at him by Liverpool fans during an F.A Cup tie, is a result of Liverpool’s response to Suarez’s racism. It also shows the seeds that the England national team and Chelsea are sowing by allowing Terry to continue to play and to captain a side, despite facing criminal charges of using racist language against Anton Ferdinand in a Premier League game.

Suarez was found by an F.A. enquiry to have used the term ‘negro’ seven times in two minutes when playing against Evra. After Suarez had been found guilty and issued with a lengthy ban, Liverpool players, with Dalglish’s approval, wore t-shirts in support of him. There were fans at the F.A. Cup tie with Oldham who were wearing Suarez t-shirts – a clear indication that Suarez is becoming a mascot for racist fans. Liverpool F.C. has allowed this to happen by refusing to condemn Suarez.

The continuation of Terry as England captain compounds the situation and makes a mockery of the F.A.’s ‘Kick Racism out of Football’ campaign. It is telling that Terry was sacked as England captain when he was alleged to have had an affair with a team mate’s estranged partner. It appears slighting a team mate’s pride and ‘stepping on his toes’ is deemed more serious than allegations of criminally racist acts.

This is a dangerous time for football. Football is a hugely popular sport and, in my opinion, it is indeed ‘the beautiful game.’ The continuing scandals about player behaviour, including allegations of sexual assaults and racism, need to be clearly responded to by fans. There is real danger that the racism emerging from some Liverpool fans on Friday night could grow and allow the club to become a focus for organised racists and fascists.

Liverpool fans need to organise petitions and demonstrations at the ground to ensure pressure is brought on Dalglish and the Directors at Liverpool to condemn Suarez and any racist fans. The wearing of provocative t-shirts, such as those with Suarez on, should be banned at Liverpool matches. England fans should be demanding the sacking of Terry as England captain and his suspension from the team.

There can be no return to the days when organised fascists were welcomed on football terraces and it is anti racist fans who now need to organise to fight back. There have been fantastic examples of football fans collecting for workers on strike stretching from the 1984 Miners’ Strike to the collections for striking journalists in Doncaster last year. Football fans are the workers, students and unemployed people that are standing up against the current cuts and who can also stand firm against racism taking a hold at their grounds.

German football clubs such as St.Pauli in Hamburg give a vision of what a progressive football club could look like. St Pauli’s constitution contains a position against racism, sexism and homophobia. It banned adverts by the men’s magazine Maxim from the ground because of their sexist nature. The club’s principles speak of ‘tolerance and respect in mutual human relations.’

The 50+1 rule in German football has always meant that fans have a majority control of their club. Something that would be great to see here. But, more importantly, the fight is now on to ensure Liverpool and England fans, and all lovers of football, organise against any resurgence or expression of racism within the game and actually realise the goal of ‘Kicking Racism Out Of Football.’


  • Written by Laura Woods
  • Category: Comment

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