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Are Everton FC silencing dissent?

How a free school objector got smeared.

Everton's players on the pitch. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Knights used to have a season ticket at Everton FC. But the club took it away. The circumstances of the case raise concerns about the silencing of dissent.

Knights is described by those who know him as a “middle-aged, quietly-spoken, primary school teacher”. He’s passionate about the club he has supported for over 50 years. And he’s also passionate about education. So when Everton announced it was to open one of the free schools the current government is championing, he found two of his passions in opposition. Because Knights takes the view that educating children is best left to the professionals.

Knights has been very involved in organising opposition to the free school, and in efforts to cast light on the qualifications of the people being put forward as suitable to educate the children of the city he lives in. And this, it seems, has led to the withdrawal of his season ticket.

He complained to the Independent Football Ombudsman about the sanction imposed on him, and about the allegations made against him; allegations he strongly refutes. The IFO’s full report is available online, under the heading "The withdrawal of a season ticket at Everton". It makes worrying reading, for the report seems to confirm that Knights is being punished not for what he has done in specific instances, but for what people thought he might do.

In the IFO report, witnesses are quoted as being made to “feel uncomfortable” by Knights’s “body language”. His “aggressive” behaviour is defined as “leaning over the desk trying to see the receptionist’s computer” and he is also described as being “aggressive, angry and abrupt”. On another occasion his behaviour is said to have made the sales staff in the club shop “be fearful of what he would do next”. He is also said to have made “a stream of telephone calls to both the school and the club” and said things on social media sites that “caused concern”.

You may, after reading that last paragraph, detect a certain lack of substance. There is much about what worried people, or what they thought might happen. It is entirely possible that people were genuinely concerned or uncomfortable about what Knights did, or to be more accurate, about what they thought he might do. But being made to feel uncomfortable may also be considered part and parcel of participating in discussion with people with whom you don’t agree. It is certainly not a crime.

Knights says the allegations are “totally false and malicious”. In relation to the incident alleged to have taken place in the club’s megastore, he says he has “not been inside the megastore for well over 10 years”. He has a letter from Kitbag, the company that runs the store, confirming it has no record of the alleged incident. The statements given to the IFO say the alleged incident took place in June 2012 but, says Knights, “the first I heard of any problem was the police arriving on my doorstep to issue a recordable verbal warning in September 2012”.

Reading the whole report, I was struck by the flimsiness of the evidence selected to back up serious accusations against Knights. Not only has he had his season ticket revoked, he has received letters from solicitors threatening legal action, and been visited at his home by police. Knights denies the incidents these actions were based on took place. The burden of proving they did lies with those making the accusations but, on the evidence of what’s set out in the IFO report, that burden has not been shouldered. Nor is there any evidence that Knights would extend his campaign to matchday staff.

The report also reveals the club’s contorted attempts to explain why Knights’s season ticket was revoked. At one point it says the reference to refusing permission to enter the club’s Goodison Park ground “was intended to refer to non-match activities”. But Knights had been told by the club’s chief executive he was “permanently banned from buying tickets”, then told he could buy tickets if he could satisfy the club he would not use them “for malign purposes”.

The IFO report notes there was “some confusion” over what Knights was banned from doing and that the explanation that he was still free to attend matches “is hard to reconcile with the instructions” given. Everton’s previous director of communications was Paul Tyrell, who regular readers will be familiar with. He told the chairman of Everton’s Shareholders’ Association that no one had been banned from Goodison. And yet the letter Knights received from Tyrell, and reproduced on an Everton fan site, clearly states “the club intends to exercise its entitlement under our Ground Regulations to refuse you admission to Goodison Park”.

The IFO rejected Knights’s complaint on the ground that “his over forceful and aggressive behaviour gave rise to fears for the safety of club employees”. Knights is furious at the damage to his reputation.

I emailed Everton for comment, but have so far received no reply.

Knights is convinced he is being targeted because of his campaigning work against the free school, something he describes as “a Tory initiative to wrest schools away from local control and employ staff on the cheap”.

Knights is as worried about the “lack of any rights for fans” as he is about the reluctance of free schools to provide details of staff salaries and qualifications. The common denominator seems to be large organisations that do not like transparency, and certainly do not like being questioned.

His case is still being handled by the Football Supporters Federation, and he is pursuing a complaint through the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Whatever your views about free schools or football fans, the fact that someone can be sanctioned not for what they do, but for what people say they think they might do, should be of concern – especially when there is a suspicion that the assertion is motivated by a desire to silence dissent.