Policing on campus is a brazen attack on free speech



In “Prevent, Police and Universities”, last year’s controversial “guidance” paper for police to help Higher Education Institutions contribute to the prevention of terrorism, David Knowles described the tension universities face between promoting open and free debate and shaping a democratic and civilised society:

One of the aims of Higher Education is “to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society”. But Higher Education Institutions also have a key role in promoting rigorous debate, free speech and freedom of enquiry within the law, which means that “HEIs need to be tolerant of a wide range of political, social, economic and scientific views, regardless of how unpopular, controversial or provocative these views are” (Knowles 2012)

Given this up-front and explicit recognition of the role played by institutions of higher learning, it is even more important to probe the current breakdown in relations between student protesters and police in universities across the UK: demonstrations demanding that “cops stay off campus” or protests against the heavy-handed way in which students have been treated for voicing their opinions, studying in the “wrong place at the wrong time”, and campaigns against rising tuition fees and public sector cuts.

The relationship between the police and universities in the UK is a slightly ambiguous one. Whilst law enforcement officers have not been banned from university campuses, as the police were from Greek universities following the excesses of the dictatorship, most universities have their own security service (some, in the case of Oxbridge, used to have their own constables). Generally speaking, universities deal with disciplinary issues in-house, but this has never prevented them (and nor should it) from calling in the police to deal with criminality.

The London bombings in 2005, and studies suggesting that British universities were serving as recruiting grounds for terrorists, has radically changed that relationship. Writing in 2005, Glees and Pope argued that there should be a “regular police presence on each campus” as well as recommending greater co-operation between universities and immigration officials. Studies like this, written in sensationalist language and emphasising terror threats and activities, have helped erode the autonomy of university security arrangements. The logical outcome of Glees and Pope’s work was seen in some universities\’ decision to fingerprint non-EU students so as to ensure their attendance at lectures.

The “Prevent” counter-terrorism strategy aimed to get police and partner institutions, including universities, working together to the extent that some universities agreed to pay part or all of the salary of University Liaison Officers.

Perhaps aware of the controversy surrounding the programme and its perceived targeting of Muslim students, the report stresses the need to respect differences of opinion and the fact that not all academics or Universities will welcome such police activities. At one point it emphasises in bold that “It cannot be stressed highly enough, how important the creation of trust and confidence is for effective police-student relations. The wrong impression could lead to a setback for Prevent and policing in general”.

Free speech clampdown

Just a year later, “trust and confidence” between police and students is at rock-bottom, with students campaigning to keep police off campus – even as university administrators are lining up to ban student protests from campuses or suspend students involved in occupations and protests. We are left with a paradoxical situation where ACPOS is stressing HEIs as arenas of debate and free speech while university senates clamp down on certain types of dissent. With the sanction of university managers, it is hardly surprising that police-student altercations have taken an ugly turn.

Our research on protest policing has found that police officers frequently differentiate between “legitimate and illegitimate” protestors and that their actions are informed by local histories of interaction. Over the past few years students in the UK have taken to the streets in greater numbers than they have in a generation. In the process they have torn up the rule book of standardised British protest – where you assemble at the appointed time, march in a pre-ordained circle, listen to a series of speeches or musical performances and head home in time for tea.

Instead, students have radicalised the protest scene in the UK. Whilst remaining peaceful and good natured for the most part, they have deviated from route plans, organised spontaneous occupations or rallies and often given the police the run around. In so doing, they have widened the debate on fees and cuts to encompass the creeping commercialisation of University education. If what the police fear most is “losing control”, then perhaps what vice-chancellors fear most is disruption to business as usual. When these fears combine, then the status of the campus as an arena where free speech, debate and assembly can flourish is suddenly in question.