Dear Office for Students,

Students across the UK have noted recent developments with regards to the issue of no platforming and free speech. The Office for Students has clarified last year the position that both universities and students’ union should take on such matters. Guidance on these matters was published on 2 February last year.

Of particular note is the commitment within the guidance that peaceful protest is a protected form of expression and that in higher education the widening of debate is to be encouraged. The signatories of this letter consider that Loughborough University should be considered a case study in both the narrowing of debate and the curtailing of peaceful protest.

It is clear to us that the guidance on free speech provided by the government last year is being disregarded at Loughborough University. The guidance states that Universities have a duty to protect freedom of expression. These guidelines have been flouted by the university.

Loughborough University has, in the past three years, sought to hamper a particular student group operating on their campus. Loughborough People & Planet have been campaigning to encourage the university to cut their ties with Barclays Bank, a bank they consider harmful to the environment. They repeatedly asked the university management to meet with them to discuss this issue and in November 2018 were told that the university would not meet with them.

Loughborough People & Planet decided that to get their cause heard they would organise peaceful protests on campus. On one occasion they sprayed water-soluble chalk messages in a prominent place on campus. Despite the chalk washing away with water/rain and the messages not being of an offensive nature, the university mistook the substance for paint and employed professional cleaning contractors, that did not need to be used, to wash the messages away. They subsequently identified a student and disciplined them for this act of free speech.

During the disciplinary process the student and their representative were told by the head of security at the university that the senior management were determined to ensure that the campus did not become a political space. The student was charged over £400 for the unnecessary professional cleaning of the ‘damage’, of which there is none. During this process Loughborough People & Planet encouraged the university to avoid disciplinary measures and instead organise an event whereby the issues of their ties with Barclays Bank could be debated openly. No response to this suggestion was received unless we are to assume the sanction is a response.

When a sub-warden publicly supported the groups actions before the disciplinary process had started, they were given an ultimatum that they must not support similar actions in the future or else give up their sub-warden role, which would mean giving up their provided accommodation and food. The individual decided they could not continue in the role with such conditions and as such had to leave their house and find a new place to live.

In a second, more recent incident, a member of the group was excluded from campus for almost two months for alleged involvement in another peaceful action in support of UCU staff going on strike. A banner was dropped out of a window with a message of solidarity and a handheld coloured smoke device was set off in an open outside area to draw attention to the banner. This led the university to indefinitely exclude a student pending a disciplinary investigation against them, despite there being no complaints from any staff or students about the peaceful action.

The student was a postgraduate and a member of the Loughborough UCU branch committee. Their exclusion meant that they were not allowed to stand at the main picket line during the UCU strike, as this was part of campus, and it was communicated to them that doing so would threaten the continuation of their PhD.

These are not isolated incidents. In the past, posters that the group have put around campus advertising their campaigns have been taken down under orders from the university management. Leaflets distributed in the university library have also been taken away within minutes of being placed on tables. Members of the group were told security would be called if they did not stop collecting petition signatures within the entrance of the library. Students were told to stop distributing inoffensive campaign leaflets at an open day, were secretly photographed by open day staff when handing them out and forced to reveal their IDs to security under the order of the university’s ordinance that requires students to do so at any spot-check. This ordinance was abused to identify students involved in peaceful protest. The group have been told by university management that any protests that coincide with open days at the university could result in disciplinary action taking place and that generally the university will seek to discipline those involved with campaigning where it sees fit, up to and including calling the police. This is despite the group acting in an entirely peaceful manner and using techniques that cause no physical damage to university property.

Another group, Campus Care Not Cops, campaigns on issues relating to the mental health of students. It started after a drugs raid in the halls on campus during which a number of innocent students were shocked to see security guards with sniffer dogs patrolling their homes and searching their rooms. Campus Care were keen to meet with the university to discuss securing better mental health provision but the university refused to discuss this, citing their belief that Campus Care included people involved with Loughborough People & Planet. This shows the extent to which the university is going in order to isolate the Loughborough People & Planet group and it is having a damaging effect on the student body.

The general narrowing of debate on campus can be seen in many areas. A recent debate organised by academic staff regarding Brexit contained two outside speakers. One was the former local Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, and the other a spokesperson from the CBI. When the organisers were challenged to include a wider variety of voices they dismissed the concerns and the event went ahead as planned, despite it being billed as being in the run up to the elections for the European Parliament and containing a narrow range of political viewpoints.

Freedom of speech and association at Loughborough University is being curtailed. We call on the authorities responsible to investigate and we call on Loughborough University to be open and transparent with any such investigation. We hope that the university will relax its policy of no student politics on campus and realise that universities are inherently political spaces and ones where dissent in relation to the way that a university is run and operated is healthy rather than something that needs to be shut down with draconian disciplinary measures.

Signed,

Loughborough People & Planet

People & Planet

Loughborough Students’ Union Labour Society

Loughborough UCU Rank & File

NUS