Leeds bans ‘unfairly disparaging’ social media posts

University policy criticised for potential chilling effect, just as institutions come under renewed pressure to promote free speech

April 24, 2024
 The view from artist Raphaela Frangou's mobile phone as she takes a photograph of herself being reflected by mirrors to illustrate Leeds bans ‘unfairly disparaging’ social media posts
Source: PA Images/Alamy

A university’s attempts to regulate staff and students’ use of social media may put it on a collision course with the English sector regulator’s new free speech rules, it has been warned.

The University of Leeds has introduced a social media policy that instructs those connected to the institution not to “post or share content (including photos, images, videos or soundtracks) which is unlawful, abusive, insulting, threatening, or which may reasonably be considered likely to cause serious distress or cause another person to fear for their safety, or which defames or unfairly disparages the university, staff/students or any third party on social media sites”.

Social media, which in Leeds’ definition includes discussion forums, instant messaging services and “any website that allows public commenting or posting”, should not be used “in a way which does not support our university values of collaboration, compassion, inclusiveness and integrity”, the policy adds.

But these restrictions are too open to interpretation, critics have claimed. “It talks about unfairly disparaging the university, but fair or unfair is a matter of opinion”, said Aisha Walker, president of the University and College Union (UCU) branch at Leeds.

“As a trade union, part of our job is to be critical where we see problems with our employer; not unfairly critical but justly critical if we see there are genuine problems. I think we do have concerns that people may find themselves facing conduct investigations for being critical of the university.”

Dr Walker, an associate professor in Leeds’ School of Education, said she feared that a personal post such as “it’s been another bad day at the University of Leeds” could fall foul of the policy, which could also, she continued, stifle more serious concerns about bullying and misconduct from being aired publicly.

From August, the Office for Students will be handed more powers to act over academic freedom and free speech, and the sector regulator has already signalled that its approach will be to seek to protect all speech that is within the law, regardless of whether it causes offence.

Dr Walker said she believed the university would need to urgently review its stance on social media in light of the coming duties, which also require institutions to actively promote free speech.

She believes a tumultuous year of industrial action and student protests – all of which are often dissected online – may have influenced the university’s decision to act.

A Leeds spokesperson said social media policies were not unusual in the sector. “We recognise the benefits and opportunities that social media offers for sharing information, fostering discussion and stimulating debate,” they said.

“The policy intends to make clear the basic rules of social media online activity, and how colleagues can protect themselves against infringements of the law, or the potential to be accused as such by third parties.

“At the same time, we remain committed to protecting freedom of speech. This is covered by our freedom of expression protocol, and our social media policy makes reference to this.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

It can be a challenge to balance freedom of expression with legal parameters. Also, possibly expensive, e.g. https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/legal-academic-awarded-30000-over-toxic-row-with-ex-colleague/5119452.article