Current Affairs

Greed, threats, and censorship: Loughborough University accused of stifling free speech

Accusations of censorship, surveillance, and restricting protests have surfaced at Loughborough University. Loughborough People and Planet released a letter on February 9th requesting that the Office of Students investigate the university’s attempts to stifle free speech on campus.

People and Planet has been leading the movement for the university to divestment from fossil fuels. In the letter sent to the Office of Students, Loughborough People and Planet and the Students’ Union Labour Society accused the university of “hampering” free speech after a student was fined £430 for writing water-soluble chalk messages on campus. A GoFundMe page organised by People and Planet raised £515 from 41 donors. During the disciplinary process the student in question was told by senior management that the university was determined to ensure that the campus did not become a political space.

The university also attempted to hush internal dissent after a sub-warden made known their support for People and Planet. They were warned that if they publicly voiced support for the group again they would have to give up their role as sub-warden and the benefits, including accommodation and food stipends. The sub-warden ultimately left their role following this condition.

Additionally, staff at the university threatened to call security to remove students collecting signatures for a petition outside the university library. Security also confiscated campaign leaflets and took the IDs of students distributing them on open day.

Loughborough University divested its endowment from fossil fuels in 2018, but People and Planet are pushing the university to divest from companies which have invested in fossil fuel companies themselves, such as Barclay’s, who have invested over £72 billion in oil companies. People and Planet were denied repeat requests to meet with the university. In response, the group organised protests on campus and used a chalk-based washable spray on the sidewalks to write the words ‘greed’, ‘threat’, and ‘censorship’ in a central part of campus.

“The university could’ve avoided the protests all together if they had agreed to meet with us. Regardless, they clearly overreacted,” said a representative of Loughborough People and Planet. “They saw a conflict as a threat and chose to take a punitive approach rather than communicating with students. It was a very deliberate decision on their part though, they were hoping we would go away if they started disciplining us. I think they know what the right way to deal with this was already, to talk to us, but it just didn’t suit them or their interests to do so.” Loughborough University have not responded to our request for comment.

This letter comes at a time when lecturers are also protesting and striking on campus. Some students at Loughborough University have missed three weeks of their eight-week terms due to strikes. Lecturers are part of the University and College Union and are demanding better pay and working conditions and a reformed pension policy under the Universities Superannuation Scheme which striking staff say costs them more but gives them less money in retirement.

Rachel James, an English student at Loughborough, argues that the UCU strikes and protests are more disruptive, yet the university has come down harder on striking students than striking staff: “people are angry that the student protests are being stopped and stifled when the adults’ protests physically stop us going onto campus and having an education during their strikes … and there’s nothing as students we can do about it.”

Multiple students have been prohibited from visiting the campus. In a protest in support of the UCU strikes, one striker was excluded from the site for two months for their alleged involvement in a protest in support of the UCU strikes. When a banner referencing the exclusion was displayed from a student window and a smoke device was set off outside, a student was also indefinitely excluded. The student, a postgraduate, was made aware that attending future strikes would threaten the continuation of their PhD studies.

“The right to protest is so important to defending students’ interests against the modern corporate university and many students here are determined to fight for that right. It was actually seriously inspiring to see that this didn’t make those students anxious, or at least not anxious enough to stop them carrying on with political organising,” said the representative of People and Planet

People and Planet have set goals for the administration and hopes to create a more open dialogue with them. The letter requests that the university address the hostile environment created through alleged censorship and surveillance and that the Office of Students investigates claims made about restricting peaceful protests.