Testing academic freedom
Three years later, the Nottingham University "terrorism" row rumbles on ---- first reading was made a crime, now internal criticism. Jane Fae reports
09 May 11

Three years later, the Nottingham University “terrorism” row rumbles on —- first reading was made a crime, now internal criticism. Jane Fae reports

In an effort to protect its reputation, Nottingham University is engaged in a witch hunt against any academic who questions its commitment to free speech. The ultimate irony? Or, as claimed in a devastating attack on the University by one of its own, Dr Rod Thornton, evidence of “something really rather dark” at the heart of British academia.

The story begins back in 2008, when two men — Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza, respectively an MA student and a member of staff at Nottingham University — were arrested and detained for six days under the Terrorism Act 2000. Their crime? As part of his research for his MA on militant Islam, Sabir had asked his friend, Hicham Yezza, to download and print three documents.

Unfortunately for both men, these documents, including the inflammatory-sounding “Al Qaeda Training Manual”, were later described by various players in the affair as “entirely inappropriate”, “unlawful” or “illegitimate”. Yet Thornton claims that the Al-Qaeda manual which led to the arrests is now stocked in the university’s library.

The incident itself is a textbook case of establishment paranoia. One of Yezza’s co-workers stumbled across the documents on his computer: they informed university security who in turn, either acting alone or in tandem with the university’s Registrar, brought in the police. The two men spent a unpleasant week being interviewed by police officers, who clearly suspected that they might have stumbled across a nascent terror cell.

Their suspicions, according to Dr Thornton, a lecturer in International Security and Terrorism with the university’s School of Politics and International Relations were bolstered by comments from members of the University, who considered possession of the documents in question to be questionable. In the end, the whole affair fizzled out. The suspects were released and moved on. There were student demonstrations and representations by local MP, Alan Simpson. There was predictable harassment, as Hicham’s visa ran out and he was declared an illegal immigrant.

Conservative US think-tank the Heritage Foundation picked up on the incident and added it to its tally of terror plots in the UK: the Home Office, allegedly, then quoted the Heritage Foundation report when asked about the extent of terrorist activities in the UK.

Not one of the establishment players — police, university, civil servants — emerge from this tale covered in glory: quite the reverse. Yet as stories go, it is neither unprecedented, nor especially unpredictable. As Dr Thornton comments: once a finger is pointed and the accusation of terrorism laid, a certain inevitable form of “groupthink” sets in.

The real problem lies in what came after, documented in exquisite detail in Dr Thornton’s paper and published, a week ago, on the website of the British International Studies Association. The paper is long and exceedingly detailed and, unusually, for an academic paper, written in the first person. Nonetheless, it is Dr Thornton’s case that such detail is necessary for the wider world to understand fully the culpability of the university in events both in 2008 and since.

There are two strands to his argument. First, that the university failed to support academic freedom, jumping to conclusions, not carrying out a risk assessment, and not testing allegations before handing them over to the police.

In a sense, though, that is history: far more serious is his claim that in the years since then, the university has increasingly clamped down on any and everyone who has failed to collude in its version of events. He himself, he claims, has been subject to formal reprimand by the university for questioning the university’s official view of events and for “harassment” of some of the principals involved: and latterly, for disciplinary matters such as failing to “add [his] office hours to the front page” of his reports.

His paper is unusual in another respect: it names names. Dr Thornton acknowledges that this may be viewed as unethical — but given the gravity of the allegations being made, he believes it is valid.

What is clear is that here we have a clash of cultures. Dr Thornton sees himself as a “whistleblower”, frustrated by the defensiveness of Nottingham University authorities and the fact that nowhere in the British body politic does any formal oversight function exist. The university — which refused to comment directly — is either guilty as charged, or seriously wronged by his allegations.

The story continues to unravel. Dr Thornton’s paper, originally published by the BISA has now been withdrawn. In a statement the organisation said it had “removed Dr Thornton’s paper from our website on legal advice following a number of complaints from academics at the University of Nottingham.” Dr Thornton himself was suspended last week on the grounds that his article was “highly defamatory of a number of his colleagues”.

We are nowhere near a resolution of this matter. At the end of the day, this episode goes to the heart of questions about the nature of academic freedom. Is the University really holding the ring and maintaining balance between opposing views? Or is it riding roughshod over all but its own preferred version of events, using any and every weapon in its armoury to reinforce its position? Only time will tell.

Jane Fae is a writer on issues of political and sexual liberty. Formerly known as John Ozimek, she has recently written Beyond the Circle, a book which takes a radical new view of discrimination on the grounds of sexuality