A London university has come up with a neat new trick to stop student protest: ban it on health and safety grounds.
Students at the London College of Communication (LCC), part of University of the Arts London (UAL), received an email this week telling them that they are not allowed to protest at any degree shows "in light of health and safety concerns". Students who took part in previous protests have been banned from the LCC building entirely for five days, and have to ask for "special arrangements" if they need to get in to do academic work. The university has become so paranoid that, earlier that day, one student was not allowed on university property because she had been leafleting.
The email cites the students' unwillingness "to follow the University protocol in respect of protest activity". The protocol is a creepy and contradictory document that outlines all the ways in which protest is restricted, while claiming that the university "strongly supports freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the peaceful assembly of its students on University property".
The constraints range from banning obvious criminal activity, which goes without saying – apparently "fighting or the use of weapons" is a no-no – to ridiculously onerous conditions that mean you can only protest so long as you ask permission and melt into the background, trying your best not to get noticed.
"University buildings are private property and occupations are not generally acceptable," it notes, depressingly. The document ominously threatens to take "appropriate measures" to remove protesters. "Planned protests and occupations which do not adversely affect the business of the University may, at the discretion of the University, be permitted with advance warning."
Fight the power!
The university has been slammed in recent months by campaigners over its role in the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle. The development is seen as just another stage of the gentrification of the area, which is aimed at turning Elephant into the "Piccadilly of the South" (AKA another expensive place, but this time in south London!). It would demolish the shopping centre, which is a hub for the local Latin American community, and replace it with swanky flats and a new building for LCC.
Students who have protested with occupations and banner drops have been met by demands from the university to respect its protocols. But even political activity that doesn’t transgress this nark's-charter has seen students turned away from university grounds.
On Monday, Arts SU Campaigns Officer Sahaya James turned up to the library and was surprised to be told by security that she wouldn't be allowed in. She was made to wait half an hour by bungling staff, who then told her she was allowed in after all, but there would be an email later about a ban. That email turned out to be the one banning protests on "health and safety" grounds.
"Sahaya James should not have been denied access on Monday. We apologise for this mistake, which was soon put right," admitted the university, when approached by VICE.
The incident raises more questions about freedom of expression on UK campuses, after we revealed that the University of London had dragged protesters kicking and screaming out of Senate House, as part of a "theatre of security" cracking down on dissent.
James was investigated following a student occupation in January, during which she allegedly opened a fire door. The investigation took two months, during which she needed permission to enter the building, which meant she had trouble doing her job and missed out on speaking at a symposium when the university didn’t respond to a request for permission. The investigation led to no action being taken.
"Since the occupation in January, it has become a given that any time I go to LCC I’m low-key followed," says James. "The sense that you'll always be asked where you're going and be followed to a greater or lesser extent has become commonplace for any student identified as being involved in the campaign."
When approached by VICE, the university said, "We have made clear to the Students' Union that access to the building will be restored if the protesting students commit to peaceful assembly.
"Over recent months, protesters have risked their own welfare and the welfare of other people in our buildings. Protests at recent degree shows have led to physical confrontation with other students. Other recorded incidents include dangerous levels of noise in confined and crowded spaces, crawling above a sheer drop, and opening a fire exit to allow entry to the building for people who are not UAL students."
Sahaya insists that the confrontation with other students is "fictitious", and the Student Union have asked for CCTV of the protest to be released to prove it. The SU have complained that it was actually LCC security who "reacted violently" to a recent protest. Video footage seen by VICE shows protesters being manhandled by security staff. "We take these allegations seriously, and we will investigate them thoroughly under the University complaints process," says LCC. Hopefully they’ll take them as seriously as they apparently take the menace of loud noises.
James says attempts by SU officers to raise this at a meeting with managers were met with bleating about "the protocol", which the SU never signed in the first place.
Students, meanwhile, have been finding innovative ways to protest anyway. Students at Chelsea withdrew their artwork at a recent degree show, covering it with posters about the campaign, in a sort of degree-show strike.
It does seem to be working. There was another protest yesterday, and Natalie Brett, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of UAL, has agreed to meet with signatories of an open letter demanding that the development has more real affordable housing and keeps the bingo hall and bowling alley.