Flagpoles, megaphones and more banned at UCL in ‘draconian’ new protest policy

Labour unions have decried the new guidelines as an erosion of free speech on campus

A new protest policy by UCL’s security subcontractor has banned a range of items, triggering widespread criticism from workers’ unions.

The guidelines prohibit the use of objects including megaphones, flag poles and speakers in protests on UCL’s campus.

Several unions have condemned the move’s chilling effects on freedom of speech on campus, with the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents contractors, criticising the guidelines as “draconian”.

In a document shared last week, days before a planned protest, Bidvest-Noonan communicated a ban on “sound systems or amplified sound equipment, including loud hailers or sirens”, “flares and fireworks”, “metal or wooden poles (inclusive of flag poles)” and “items deemed that can be weaponised.”

The memo also attempted to set guidelines on how staff and students can behave during protests. The private contractor reminded staff and students not to use “threatening or offensive language” or “physical force” but also to avoid “any large equipment that might disrupt the day-to-day operations as well as preventing the safe and free access and egress to UCL campus.”

Despite the new guidelines, IWGB members went ahead with their planned protest on Monday, joined by students and members of other university unions.

A spokesperson for the union said: “IWGB members, determined not to be silenced, went ahead with the protest on Monday calling out UCL’s unfair treatment of its workers. They were joined by UCL staff and students, who supported calls for the university to end outsourcing and give workers equal rights alongside UCL employees.”

Monday’s protest was the latest in an ongoing dispute between the IWGB and Bidvest-Noonan, UCL’s primary subcontractor for security staff, over contractors’ working conditions. UCL security staff have challenged Bidvest-Noonan’s alleged fire-and-rehire tactics which can result in employees having to reapply for lower-paid jobs.

Following the introduction of the new guidelines, IWGB union members broadened their protest on Monday to also criticise attacks on freedom of assembly, with similar protests at City University of London the week before.

In a joint letter, the UCU and Unite unions lambasted the new protest guidelines as an unlawful infringement on student and staff rights.

They wrote: “This policy is likely to be unlawful because it limits free speech on campus, contrary to the Education (No2) Act 1998 s43 and the Higher Education (Freedom of speech) Act 2023.”

The letter continued: “Bidvest-Noonan is not entitled to draft its own set of restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly beyond legislation.”

An IWGB spokesperson also decried the move as “an illegal assault on the right to protest and an insult to every member of the UCL community.”

They also criticised Bidvest-Noonan’s failure to forewarn or consult students and staff before introducing the new policy.

The statement continued: “The regulations, issued unilaterally by Bidvest Noonan just days before a planned IWGB protest, were clearly introduced to intimidate our members and threaten our demonstration. Students and directly employed staff were neither informed nor consulted about the policy, despite it claiming to apply to everyone on campus.”

The union alleges that protesters were challenged on Monday by Bidvest Noonan security guards who “ordered them to stop using flagpoles and loudspeakers, and summoned the police to campus when protesters refused.”

The IWGB characterised the subcontractor’s actions as “authoritarian” and challenged the power that a private company can exercise on campus.

It wrote: “We cannot allow a private company to restrict the freedom of speech of workers and students at a public institution in this way. It is an extraordinary overstep on behalf of Bidvest Noonan and a worrying addition to the wave of authoritarian measures introduced in the last year to restrict peoples’ right to protest.”

UCL and Bidvest-Noonan have been contacted for comment

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