The Absolute State of UK Universities

Student banned for discrimination after saying ‘Rule, Britannia’

University union suspends 19-year-old, who claims she has been disciplined for the ‘crime of being patriotic’

A student has been banned from a university union for making the quip “Rule, Britannia” during a debate about the British Army’s presence on campuses.

Elizabeth Heverin was disciplined by officials at Aberdeen University Students’ Association (AUSA) for using “discriminatory or racist language”, after a fellow student complained.

The 19-year-old cited the song in a virtual hustings on whether to renew a union policy on the “demilitarised campus”, where the Armed Forces are barred from recruiting students or visiting AUSA buildings and events. Officials subsequently banned her from all students’ union buildings, debates and services for two weeks.

“It feels like I’ve been prosecuted for the crime of being patriotic,” she told The Telegraph. “It’s scary to think where freedom of speech at the university will go from here.

The Free Speech Union said the ban “beggars belief” and called on the students’ union to rescind the punishment and apologise.

International students raised concerns during the online meeting in December that the presence of military personnel on campus would make them feel uncomfortable, due to links with colonialism and the British Empire.

Buildings at Aberdeen University.

International students raised concerns that the presence of military personnel on campus would make them feel uncomfortable

It prompted Ms Heverin, a first-year history and politics student who sits on the union’s council, to ask in an accompanying webchat: “If the British military makes them feel uncomfortable why did they come to a British uni?” In a post several minutes later, she wrote: “Rule, Britannia.”

An attendee filed a formal complaint to students’ union authorities, and a disciplinary investigation was launched. Reporting their findings last month, union officials told Ms Heverin “the language used by you, in particular the use of the phrase ‘Rule Britannia’, could be construed as potentially discriminatory”.

However, they were unable to determine whether there was “deliberate racist intent” in her utterance of it. They found she had breached three parts of a bylaw, including failing to “conduct [herself] in a manner that shall not offend others and shall not use foul and abusive language, either orally, in writing or by expression or by engaging in any form of discriminatory or anti-social behaviour”.

The anthem Rule, Britannia! is associated with the Royal Navy and originated from a poem by James Thomson. It has been a key feature of the Last Night of the Proms, prompting a major row last year over plans to drop the song amid Black Lives Matter protests. Critics have taken issue with its nationalistic message, and the line “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”.

Ms Heverin said she had experienced an “anti-British atmosphere” in the students’ union and attempts of “trying to shame people from being proud to be British”. She raised concern that new laws to protect free speech at universities unveiled by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to combat “rising intolerance” on campuses would not extend to Scotland.

Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, said: “This is a misguided attempt to silence someone based on ignorant guesswork about their political values. Trying to silence people you suspect of harbouring unfashionable views through bans or by no-platforming them should have no place at a university.”

The AUSA meeting eventually resolved to overturn the policy banning military organisations and personnel, including the Aberdeen University Officer Training Corps, from AUSA buildings or events.

Aberdeen University Students’ Association was approached for comment.