Kent Police is under fire today after it emerged the force demanded a list of people who attended a fracking debate at Canterbury Christ Church University.
The force claims it made the demand for reasons of “public safety” and to assess “the threat and risk for significant public events”.
But critics have branded Kent Police’s actions reprehensible.
Sociology academics organised a debate on November 19 for members of the public to discuss the pros and cons of fracking, which some companies are pushing to test in east Kent.
Among those attending was Thanet district Green Party councillor Ian Driver. He said: “It’s deplorable. This was a public debate. It was not a meeting planning any actions, protests or demonstrations. It was simply a public discussion about a controversial issue.”
“It’s deplorable. This was a public debate. It was not a meeting planning any actions, protests or demonstrations...” - Cllr Ian Driver
Anti-fracking activist Julie Wassmer, from Whitstable, tweeted: “I was a panel speaker at this uni debate. Outrageous!”
Richard Stainton, who is also from Whitstable, added: “Police need more cuts if [they have] time to snoop on students.”
Christ Church has refused to provide police with the list of attendees.
Stuart Jeffery, the Green Party general election candidate for Canterbury and Whitstable, is also furious at the demand.
He said: “As one of the people who attended the debate, I believe that your request is an abuse of your powers and I seek your formal apology and assurance that steps will be taken to ensure that this does not recur.
“I am, however, extremely pleased that Canterbury Christ Church University refused to provide the information.
"While I, as a public figure, am personally happy for others to know of my attendance at the debate, there will be many in the audience who do not wish you to have their details – details that you have no right to know.”
Kent Police spokesman Steve Knight said: “Kent Police assesses the threat and risk for significant public events in the county to allow it to maintain public safety and appropriately allocate resources. This assessment includes engaging and working with event organisers.
“However, Kent Police did not obtain a list of people who had expressed an interest in attending.
“Police attendance was not required during the meeting, but the Dover District Chief Inspector did attend the event as an interested stakeholder.”
Kent Police refused to outline how the inspector could be an “interested stakeholder”.
A spokesman for the University and College Union, which represents academics, said: “Academic freedom is a key tenet of our democracy and rightly cherished by our universities.
"We are extremely uncomfortable with the police asking for details of people intending to attend a public meeting.
“Universities must remain a safe space for students, staff and guests to rigorously debate any issue and not fear that the police, or any other Big Brother figure, is looking over them knowing who they are and where they live.”
Kent Police and Crime Commissioner weighed into the row this afternoon, saying in a statement: "I would like to thank those who have emailed me and contacted the office concerning the Guardian report that Kent Police asked for a list of members of the public who were due to attend an open debate at Canterbury Christ Church University.
"I have asked Kent Police to gather all the necessary information about the actions taken and I shall be meeting the Chief Constable tomorrow.
"Personally, had I known the debate was taking place I would very much have liked to have attended.
"It is a subject that I am interested in and would liked to have learned much more about.
"Also, I live in the east of the county where I am aware that people have concerns.
"This is an important matter and during my meeting with the Chief Constable I shall be seeking clarity about the approach that Kent Police took towards this meeting in Canterbury and that which it is reported to have taken.”
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