What happened? On May 15 2008, two university members – a student and a member of staff – were arrested under the Terrorism Act (2000) because they possessed copies of the ‘Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ which had been downloaded from the United States Department of Justice website. An extended version of the same document is available for sale in book form on Amazon.com. The student, a member of the university’s Politics and International Relations department, was researching terrorism for his postgraduate studies and was being advised by a friend of his, who was a former student and administrative member of staff. Both men were held in police custody for six days before being released without charge.
The Terrorism Act (2000) stipulates that: ‘A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.’
Has academic freedom been attacked? Excerpts from the ongoing debate…
Professor Scott Lucas
This is not a question of ‘access (to) and research (of) terrorist materials.’ No page or picture frame or moving image is ‘terrorist’ in and of itself. It is how that material is used to fan the flames of division and hostility that can lead to acts of violence. The problem was never the typeset pages of Mein Kampf; rather, it was in the use of those pages to justify bigotry, racism, war and genocide…
Vice-Chancellor, do you think that, through your denial of texts to us, you make us safer? Do you think that, by denying us our ability to think, consider, criticise, you shelter us from harm? Do you think that you protect us from ourselves and prevent us from becoming extremists?
Letter signed by five University of Nottingham academics
The idea that it was not appropriate for a non-academic member of staff to be in possession of the document should be considered in light of the fact that the document was openly available to the general public. The idea of inappropriateness suggests a narrow interpretation of intellectual freedom for those who are not authorised academics and registered students. University managers appear reluctant to concede that a non-academic might legitimately possess open source documents, here a former long-standing student writing regularly for student papers on current affairs and free speech. Citizen journalists and bloggers beware!
Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the UCU
We believe the implications of Sir Colin’s statement constitute a serious threat to academic freedom. We have written to the Higher Education Minister seeking urgent clarification about the current anti-terrorism legislation and its relationship to freedom of academic inquiry.
University Portal, May 19, 2008
Where individual or group action unsettles the harmony of the campus, the University is committed to working through established channels to reinforce the values and standards that underpin a diverse and tolerant environment.
University Portal, May 25, 2008
All members of the University can be reassured that we take very seriously our duty to ensure that students and staff are free to study and work in a safe, secure and tolerant environment. There are many ways in which we all work to deliver such conditions and to ensure that everyone at Nottingham is able to enjoy freedom of speech and expression within the law.
Sir Colin Campbell, Vice-Chancellor
The University had to make a risk assessment: no panic, no hysteria, just a straightforward risk assessment … Much has been said on the matter of academic freedom. The University of Nottingham has always fully embraced this principle and continues to do so.
It is clear that there is no ‘right’ to access and research terrorist materials. Those who do so run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges. Equally, there is no ‘prohibition’ on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges (although they may be held in custody for some time while the matter is investigated). This is the law and applies to all Universities, including this one.
University Portal, June 3, 2008
The police spent six days investigating this matter. They had to examine substantial quantities of information and also establish the nature and scope of the relationships and sequence of events … The investigations concluded with police satisfied they understood why this material had been sent to a clerical member of staff. Both individuals were then released without charge.