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Student journalist threatened with expulsion for obtaining 'confidential' documents


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In the latest example of conflict between student media and university administrations, a University College London (UCL) student journalist was made to feel “terrified” after obtaining “confidential” documents.

President of Pi Media, Rebecca Pinnington, was threatened with “disciplinary action” if she published documents containing information that an expected cash surplus from student accommodation running into millions of pounds.

Rebecca Pinnington

UCL deemed the information to be “confidential”, but the internal report showing forecasts for the next three years was left openly available to university students and staff via a UCL executive’s Microsoft Outlook Calendar.

Despite this fact Rebecca was forced to delete the documents after she was threatened with “disciplinary action”.

A letter handed to her in a formal meeting set up by UCL’s Vice-Provost Rex Knight, highlighted various sanctions potentially including expulsion or court action. Rebecca was asked to sign an agreement to “immediately deliver up or destroy all copies of the UCL Confidential Information.”

Rebecca told The National Student, “I was terrified. I thought I was going to be expelled. In what world is a student who experiences that not terrified?”

A copy of the letter, seen by the Independent, read, “UCL has the ability to invoke various sanctions following an event of unauthorised use, including, against individuals, the Student Disciplinary Code with penalties that could include suspension from the use of all UCL computing facilities for extended periods, dismissal without notice and potential exposure to court proceedings.”

She is in her final semester of her Bachelors degree and would lose out on her chance of gaining this degree if she were excluded.

Rebecca said she offered to interview UCL regarding the documents, giving them a chance to explain the content, but was told that she could conduct one on the issues raised but she still could not cite the documents.

UCL argued against this in a press statement saying: “UCL would like to make clear that no disciplinary action has been taken and no student threatened with expulsion after accessing confidential information. We were made aware of a potential breach of our computer regulations governing the downloading of confidential content. These are standard regulations that one would expect to find in place at any major organisation”.

But, in the midst of a rent strike currently being held by UCL students, Rebecca argued that this information is in the public interest.

She said: “I don’t think, personally, that there is an excuse for that [the documents] to be confidential, I think it [UCL] should be a very transparent institution.

“There are so many people here who have a huge stake in what UCL does: the students have a massive stake, the lecturers have a massive stake, and people want to know what is going on. Yet there is this massively opaque decision making process that basically absolves the university of its accountability to its students.”

Many have shown their support for Rebecca, including recently “no-platformed” Peter Tatchell as well as journalists and fellow students.

The Student Publication Association of which Pi Media is a member have also shown their support for Rebecca. In a statement issued by SPA Chair Jem Collins, the organisation said, “We cannot condemn this kind of kind of behaviour strongly enough. No student journalist should be threatened for doing their jobs.

“With the background of the rent strikes at UCL, it is also blindingly obvious that this story is demonstrably in the public interest.

“Universities and unions need to realise that student journalism there to hold them to them account – not be a PR tool – and that threats like this are completely unacceptable.

“The SPA will continue to work with both Becky and the team at Pi Media to make sure this does not get swept under the carpet.”

You can sign a petition in support of Rebecca Pinnington HERE

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