From the beginning of February 2019, the University has introduced a new Code of Conduct on Protests which has been described by the University and College Union (UCU) as “unnecessary, regressive and impractical.” Recently, a group of students has actively demonstrated their discontent and concerns on the new Code, initiating a petition on the Students’ Union website.
In their statement, the students mentioned that the Code “will have a detrimental effect on students’ right to peaceful protest and free speech on campus… [as]… the vague and subjective criteria set by the new Code create barriers to students who wish to peacefully express dissenting views.”
Until today, over 120 students have signed the petition and on 17th May the University Council members are due to vote on whether the Code will be redrafted. Talking to SCAN, the student group highlighted that redrafting the Code would give the University an opportunity to issue something which reflects the spirit of “a time-honored tradition of student activism on campus and guarantees that protest and expression of dissent remain unobstructed and equally accessible to all students”
A PhD student commenting on the Code said:
“This new code sets an extremely dangerous precedent for punitive measures against student activism. It presupposes all forms of protest to be threatening, and as such, works to impede on our right to protest by creating unreasonable bureaucracy that dissuades (often urgent) action. Protest is such an important tool in working towards justice. It needs to be protected.”
Similarly, another student added:
“The new protest code ignores the fact that learning and research do not happen in a social vacuum, they happen in constant interaction with our social, economic and political realities. Protest and activism are forms of engaging with these realities in an attempt to bring about change or reform. Protest is a legitimate expression of the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Undermining these rights means undermining the very aims of the university. Creating layers of regulatory complexity for campus protest – which the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Committee has specifically warned about – sends the message that the University is actively seeking to control the political life of its members.”
Recalling that the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University, Charles Carter, used to engage with a number of protests himself, the students mentioned that the ongoing discussions have reminded them their past, made them aware of the present, as well as allowing them to realise the type of future they are striving for.
“This is an Opportunity for the University Community to rewrite the narrative around the practice of free speech in higher education”
The University told SCAN:
“In keeping with the policy’s clear articulation of support for lawful protest and a proportionate approach by the University a number of protests have occurred on campus since that date, without any issues. The Code was considered and consulted upon during the Michaelmas Term and at that point no concerns were raised by staff or student representatives”
“More recently, some concerns have been raised by a few members of staff and students and further discussions with staff and UCU representatives have been held to discuss these.”
“The University will continue to keep reviewing the operation of the Code and the Council will receive a report on the issues raised in May.”
The new Code of Conduct has recently further attracted the attention of former alumni. Among those, Cat Smith, Lancaster and Fleetwood’s current MP, said:
“Lancaster University should rightfully be proud of its history in encouraging and nourishing debate and facilitating lawful protest, taking the lead from its founding Vice Chancellor, Charles Carter. I am deeply concerned that this onerous and regressive Code of Conduct actively undermines Lancaster’s proud history, and places a unfair and unnecessary burden on any students or staff seeking to take part in lawful and peaceful protest. I urge the University to immediately suspend the code and work in good faith with students and staff to redraft it, and safeguard the future of healthy student and staff activism on campus”
Similarly, the novelist, graduate and honorary alumna, Ahdaf Soueif, expressed her concerns and asked the university “reconsider this action, to heed the warning of Parliament, and to urgently take steps to restore Lancaster University to its true ethical and educational function.”
Further information on the matter will follow.