A lecturer has alleged that a university threatened that there would be “no long-term future” for him at the institution unless he withdrew his opposition to the construction of a controversial local bypass.
William Walton claims in documents submitted to the European Court of Human Rights that pressure put on him by the University of Aberdeen compromised his right to freedom of expression and a fair trial.
Aberdeen has said that the allegations were “without foundation” and that Mr Walton – who was a senior lecturer in geography in the School of Geosciences – was offered a new position, which he turned down, after the alleged threat took place.
Mr Walton has been chairman of the anti-bypass group RoadSense since 2006, which has campaigned against the building of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route. The group has used legal channels to fight the scheme right up to the Supreme Court, which dismissed its appeal in October 2012.
Now, through the European Court of Human Rights, Mr Walton and three other claimants are seeking damages from the UK government for a variety of reasons, citing flaws in a public inquiry into the bypass and the impact on nearby properties.
In one part of the claim – in which the university is named as a third party – Mr Walton alleges that Aberdeen made “unwarranted interventions in order to discourage or dissuade me from continuing with my judicial appeals”.
In May 2012, before RoadSense’s appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr Walton claims that a head of school at the institution verbally pressured him to withdraw the legal challenge.
“I was told by the Head of School that if I did not withdraw the appeal then I would have ‘…no long term (employment) future at the University’,” the submission states.
“I was told by the Head of School that this ultimatum had come from the principal, Professor Sir Ian Diamond, who was a strong supporter of the bypass scheme,” it continues.
A spokeswoman for the university said that it “does not take a position on local planning issues”.
In May 2012, Mr Walton was one of a number of Aberdeen staff at risk of redundancy because of the closure of courses in spatial planning.
Although offered another post at the university, he declined it to take up a position as senior lecturer at the University of Northumbria’s School of Law in September.
It is understood that when negotiating Mr Walton’s voluntary severance package, the university requested that as part of the deal he withdraw a subject access request – a legal right that allows individuals to obtain all the information held on them by an organisation.
Since 2010, three other academic staff members are also thought to have been offered voluntary severance terms that stipulated that they withdraw a request or that prohibited them from submitting one in the future. The Aberdeen spokeswoman said that the university had “offered voluntary severance terms to a number of staff”.
Responding to claims that Mr Walton’s agreement obliged him to withdraw a subject access request, she said: “In keeping with normal employment practice, he was required to enter into a compromise agreement that concluded his employment. Mr Walton accepted the terms offered.”
A spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office said that it was not legally possible to prevent someone submitting a subject access request as this right was enshrined in law. However, he added, doing so might breach the terms of a redundancy contract with implications for any financial settlement reached.