'The way Bristol Uni handled my David Miller complaint messed up my uni life'

Nina Freedman first complained about David Miller in May 2019, and her ordeal didn't end until June 2022 when Bristol was ordered to apologise and pay compensation


It was shortly before the end of her first year as an undergraduate at Bristol University in 2019 that Nina Freedman sent the email that was to change her life for the next three years.

Sitting in her room at her student halls, the 18-year-old had filed a complaint to the authorities about the incendiary statements of Professor David Miller.

He was later to be sacked by the university, but at the time Jewish students were horrified that an established member of staff was openly speaking of the “Israel lobby” and dismissing claims of antisemitism in Labour as “mostly false”.

Nina herself hadn’t been at the shocking lecture during which Miller had given a Powerpoint presentation, including a jaw-dropping slide depicting a network of prominent Jewish individuals and organisations, with “Israeli government” at the top.

But after taking up the position of president at the Bristol University Jewish Society (JSoc), she believed it was her duty to act on behalf of those students who had been exposed to Miller’s rantings.

“I felt like I had to,” she told the JC in an exclusive interview, after being vindicated when the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) ordered Bristol to give her an apology and financial compensation.

Only now has she been freed from the confidentiality rules the university had imposed on her. Speaking for the first time about the complaint that left her trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, the former head girl from Yavneh College in Borehamwood, North London said: “I was elected to represent all the Jewish students at Bristol. I felt like it was down to me to make sure we got some kind of justice.”

She never imagined that the complaint would be the start of a long ordeal, in which she was forbidden to speak to anyone else about the process and targeted by horrific trolling online.

She was even warned about the dangers of physical attacks and instructed in how to look for car bombs.

She said: “This is the first time I can say anything now everything’s been concluded.”

Nina sent the complaint in May 2019, writing to the university authorities: “We are deeply concerned that a lecturer is able to use his position of influence in a prestigious academic institution in order to spread conspiracy theories and propagate myths for which he has no evidence”, and supplying several examples from Miller’s writings, including his notion of the “Zionist lobby” in the UK.

In July, the complaint was rejected by a member of staff in Miller’s faculty, the department of social sciences. Nina said: “They refused to use the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism, even though we asked them to. So, by the metrics they were using, they obviously found that he did nothing wrong.”

Nina feared there may have been bias, a charge that Bristol denies: “He [the member of staff investigating the complaint] worked within the same school as the lecturer we were complaining against. Surely a complaint should be judged by someone who doesn’t have a personal relationship with either party?”

Bristol’s rules allowed a complaint to be moved from the “local stage” — within the school or faculty — to the “university stage” where the complaint is assessed by three senior members of staff who have had no prior involvement with the complaint if the student wishes to escalate it.

However, Nina decided to put matters on hold: “We agreed to pause the appeal until after they had decided whether or not to adopt IHRA because I thought there was no point continuing with the complaint when they’re not judging it fairly.”

However, she eventually felt forced to act: “We were actually tipped off by [an SU official] who told us they were planning to adopt [IHRA] without the examples, which we weren’t informed of at all. So, we then decided that obviously that was unacceptable and we would put pressure on them.”

They planned a protest to demand the university adopt the definition, but a senior member of university staff called a meeting: “They said to me, ‘I don’t know why you’re protesting; we’re planning on adopting it in full.’ It was a bit weird because we heard the opposite from pretty much everyone else who was going to be in the meeting. But we just decided to do it anyway because it couldn’t hurt.”

Meanwhile, Miller was crowdfunding to support disgraced former Labour MP Chris Williamson’s lawsuit against the Labour Party, which had suspended him for the second time in June 2019 after he told activists that Labour had been “too apologetic” over allegations of antisemitism.

Despite the pressure against a protest from the senior member of staff, the JSoc demonstration went ahead in December 2019.

Nina successfully dragged 40 students out of bed at 8am to demonstrate as members of the Bristol University senate arrived at a meeting to debate adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Happily, they voted to adopt it in full with all of the examples.

Eight months on from making her initial complaint against Miller, Nina was able to escalate it to the university stage of the process: “In my mind, in the minds of all the Jewish students I was representing at the time, there was no question that what [Miller] had said was antisemitic. No one had a doubt in their mind about that, so until I got a result that said that, I wasn’t going to stop.”

More than a year after Nina’s complaint, in June 2020 there was finally an update: “The outcome of my complaint was that this is going on to an HR investigation. That was the outcome, and they said, ‘You’re not entitled to know anything further, if anything comes of this complaint, or anything like that.’” Nina was bound by very strict confidentiality rules that meant she could not speak to anyone about the complaint: “I was 19, I had no idea what was going on at this point in the complaint.”

The university was going to appoint an external QC to assess the allegations against Miller.

Nina was told that she would be interviewed, but she heard nothing for months: “It was incredibly confusing, and the whole time I was being threatened with disciplinary action if I broke confidentiality. So, really, I had no idea what was going on. It was a really confusing time for me.”

In October 2020, student newspaper The Bristol Tab published an article by Jewish student journalist Sabrina Miller calling for the university to fire David Miller. Suddenly, the QC wanted to interview Nina.

On 28 October, Nina gave evidence: “I had the hearing, presented all my evidence, and then heard nothing. I emailed the QC and said, ‘Am I entitled to find out what happened, the action taken?’”

Nina says she was told: “No, you’re not entitled to know anything. Your complaint ended in June 2020 when they referred it to an HR complaint, so you’re not entitled to know anything beyond that.”

She was left feeling cruelly cut out of the loop: “I wasn’t allowed to know anything, but I had to present all this evidence. I was obviously still very emotionally invested in it, and I wasn’t allowed to know anything about it. But I could assume nothing happened because he was still teaching and he was still there.”

By this time, Nina was in her final year of university, having made her complaint in her first year. Edward Isaacs had taken over as JSoc president, when in February 2021 Miller complained about the head of the Bristol JSoc on a Zoom meeting. It was not clear whether Miller was referring to the current president or one of his predecessors, but afterwards Mr Isaacs received abuse from anonymous trolls, as did Nina.

Miller had claimed that the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) is obliged to “silence critics of Zionism or the State of Israel on British campuses”.

He also said that the Bristol JSoc, alongside all Jewish Societies and the UJS, are engaged in a “campaign of censorship” which “renders Arab and Muslim students, as well as anti-Zionist Jewish students, particularly unsafe”. He added that this “campaign of censorship” is “directed by the State of Israel”. As Isaacs considered whether he should make a complaint, Nina told him: “My advice was that if you want to get involved in this, you need to be 100 per cent sure that you’re ready for this to take over your life.” Isaacs put in a complaint, and Bristol finally bowed to pressure, announcing another investigation into Miller. He enjoyed the supported of academics who wrote an open letter, prompting Nina to tweet her fear that she might find one of her tutors on the list of signatories.

She was subject to horrendous abuse on social media. One post listed sexual predators, saying they’d “love” to meet her. She recalls: “I was crying on the phone to my mum, which never normally happens. This one really screwed me up. I was a 20-year-old girl just living my life, and then to receive that was actually pretty scary. The CST was giving me security briefings, they were constantly monitoring my social media because everything blew up quite badly. CST said to make sure that no one follows you home, make sure no one puts a bomb under your car. It was quite intense, and we actually did get quite scared.”

On 1 October 2021, it was announced that Miller had been fired by the university.

Later that month, pro-Palestine website Electronic Intifada obtained a copy of the QC report that Nina had never seen or been told about. The website also named her publicly as a complainant for the first time.

Nina said: “I was definitely angry, and it just felt really unfair. It felt like the whole time the university had made me promise to keep everything confidential, and I’d gone along with everything, and then my name was still put into the public domain.”

Amid another onslaught of online abuse, Nina took the last step available to her: she complained to the OIA about how Bristol handled her complaint. Last month, she was finally vindicated: “The OIA came to a conclusion which was that the university had mishandled my complaint.

“The thing that they were unhappy with was the timeline; that they took far too long to respond to my complaint. Also, they recommended that the university give me all the information about the outcome, and provide me with information that I hadn’t had thus far, and give me an apology, and give me financial compensation.”

She was awarded £500 in compensation, which she has donated to World Jewish Relief and the UJS: “I wasn’t expecting any money.

“I didn’t go into this expecting money; I just wanted an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing on the part of the university.

“I think this is a good result that shows that the university clearly mishandled it. I’d say not every part was acknowledged. No one acknowledged the data breach [which enabled Electronic Intifada to establish her identity], which I think was quite significant. That wasn’t really addressed, but at this point, my lawyers Mishcon de Reya, said, ‘Do you want to keep going?’ I said that I’m done with it at this point. It’s been long enough.”

Nina carried a burden unknown to anyone else, and after more than three years, she is done: “I don’t really feel proud, I feel exhausted and frustrated. It’s not really a matter of pride, it’s a matter of they’ve finally done anything, their duty of care — they’re finally doing the bare minimum. I think complaints procedures need to be looked at in a variety of ways. The burden of confidentiality on students needs to be addressed, because a student shouldn’t be scared to put forward complaints.

"There needs to be better transparency about what’s going on in a complaint. If a student has a grievance with a professor, they should know how their complaint is being handled. They shouldn’t be in the dark about that, like I was.”

She is still angry with Bristol: “One of the worst things they did was, throughout the whole process, they told me that I was bound by confidentiality, and if I shared any details of the process, they would then start a disciplinary procedure against me.”

Her advice to other students considering a complaint? “I would say, firstly, don’t feel like you have to get involved and spend your whole life doing it. Obviously your number one priority should be your own wellbeing and getting your degree, because that’s what you’re there for, so don’t feel like you have to take up this massive mantle just because people want you to. But, if you decide to, like I did, there’s this whole community of people that are willing to help and make sure that you don’t face this burden alone, so make sure that you’re using those resources. I couldn’t have done any of it without them.”

Nina’s life was turned upside down by the complaint but still she credits her experience with setting her life on a new trajectory. She graduated in 2021 and has recently finished a year as president of the UJS: “This whole thing set me on my whole path to UJS. I wouldn’t have done any of that if this hadn’t happened."

A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “We accept the OIA ruling and have apologised to Ms Freedman for the length of time that it took to consider her complaint and for the lack of detail given to her about the outcome.

“The complaint involved complex issues of a serious nature which needed serious consideration, and unfortunately the pandemic affected the speed at which the University could progress the complaint after March 2020.

“There are considerable sensitivities about sharing particular outcomes with a complainant and about confidentiality. All those involved were asked to keep the investigation confidential as all our employment processes are confidential. This is standard practice to protect the integrity of the process and the personal information of everyone involved.

“The OIA found no bias in our Student Complaints Procedure and consultation is underway in relation to improving our complaints process, including the information that we can give complainants at each stage of the process. Alongside the procedure we will be publishing a flow chart which shows each stage of the process and appropriate guidance. We hope to have this in place for the next academic year, beginning September 2022.”

Prof Miller said in the statement: “The University’s apology to Zionist students at Bristol is the result of a lawfare campaign led by law firm Mishcon de Reya, the State of Israel’s attack dog in the UK.

“The campaign against me and other British academics by Zionist lobbyists, with the tacit approval of key figures in both the Conservative and Labour parties, is a sign of state capture of key institutions in the UK by the State of Israel.

“The UK’s security policy and its approach to policing speech is, now more than ever, hostage to an extremist movement working on behalf of a hostile and illegitimate foreign state.”

Read more:

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