08 April 2008

University in Using Sledgehammer to Crack Nut Shocker!

There was a very peculiar story in the Times Higher the other day, picked up by the Telegraph yesterday, of how Anglia Ruskin University has reacted to the grievances expressed by one of its students.

It seems that one Naomi Sugai, a master's student doing some sort of business course and the student representative for that course, having grown frustrated with attempts to complain formally about how her course was being handled, decided to air her concerns publicly.

Basically, she filmed a short clip of herself claiming that she was was gathering evidence to complain to Trading Standards about the university; she specifically complained in the clip about timetables being issued late and inaccurately, and alleging that the University had said that its students could choose modules tailored to their needs, but that this hadn't happened on her course where all modules were compulsory.

She posted the clip on YouTube back on 25 February, and eventually it drew the attention of the University authorities, who in turn clearly felt a need to alert everyone else to their shortcomings. Claiming that comments posted on YouTube in response to the video were defamatory, the University suspended Naomi indefinitely, and barred her from the campus, with Steve Bennet, the Secretary and Clerk writing to inform her:
Should you attend the campus during your suspension, security staff have been instructed to remove you and, if necessary, to seek assistance from the police. Given the seriously defamatory nature of your comments, this matter has also been referred to our solicitors.
The supposedly defamatory comments have since been taken down, but the video itself is still online, and if you watch it you'll probably wonder why the University has made such a fuss. It's pretty inoffensive, really, just a girl sitting at a computer in her bedroom, talking to her webcam and grumbling vaguely about her course. If the University had stayed calm it's safe to say that this wouldn't have caught the attention of the national media, and wouldn't have inspired internet comment.

Do they not understand that creating martyrs is a bad idea?

Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of Naomi's case, and the fact that things are only defamatory if they are false, what intrigues me most about this is the notion that she could be prosecuted for comments made in connection with the video. The comments have since been removed, so it's not clear whether she made the comments herself or whether the comments were responses by others to the video. Common sense might suggest the former, but this comment of hers from yesterday suggests otherwise:
Belfast confetti I'm afraid I had to delete your comment as it could have been construed as "defamatory" and I have been told to regulate this site. I do not like to censorship but unfortunately I have no choice.
Isn't that interesting? It seems -- and it's important to say that the whole story may not be in play just yet -- that the University has threatened to prosecute her for something someone else has said! Are they just bluffing? After all, it would seem that she was neither the author nor the publisher of the offending comments -- YouTube is the publisher. How then could she be held responsible for them? Granted, she has to power to delete comments, but I think the University would be on shaky ground if it tried to argue that people ought to police all responses to things they've posted on the internet.

It's kind of funny reading the comments, though, both in response to the video and in connection with blogs commenting on it; quite a few people are remarking that they'd never even heard of Anglia Ruskin before this happened, while others simply ask why Naomi went there!

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