Policing Academic Freedom

A few months back the Times Higher Education supplement reported that the Department of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham were to vet all module reading lists to ascertain “whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence”. This move is in the wake of the arrests last year of two members of the campus community, Rizwaan Sabir, a then MA student in this department, and Hicham Yezza, an administrator in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the story. Such a auditing process, for all modules in the department, in the words of David Miller of the Teaching Terrorism group at Strathclyde University is a “fundamental attack on academic freedom”. Two members of staff from the department rushed to defend the university and the policy. Academic freedom they note ‘applies to staff, not students, and academics, not administrators’ – academic freedom only applies to institutionally sanctioned members of academic staff.

Such a definition of academic freedom is dangerous and it is our duty as scholars, particularly young scholars, to resist it before it becomes more common currency. It is worrying that this definition is accepted elsewhere. Two academics from this university have recently published a short pamphlet that essentially make the same argument, that the terrorism arrests here were not a threat to academic freedom since academic freedom applied only to members of staff. Rod Thornton replies to this defense of the new policy in detail in a remarkably clear sighted article that is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for his account of his experience of the inception of this policy. It should be noted that Thornton is hardly a soft touch, being an expert in terrorism and counter-insurgency and an occasional advisor to the British Ministry of Defense and NATO. He concludes that:

But the issue with the two who were arrested was not really about academic freedom; it was about freedom per se. Both had a right to be in possession of the document the student had taken from a US Department of Justice website. Anyone in this country can also go down to their local library and order the full version of both books that this edited-down document was taken from. Both books and the document are not restricted in any way. The idea put forward by the two writers that ‘academic staff’ could look at these books/document while ordinary members of the public could not is simply a false dichotomy and I do not know why the writers are talking about it. As was made clear last year, there was nothing ‘illegitimate’ about the document that led to the arrests.

Thornton is correct. Such an esoteric definition of academic freedom would exclude almost everyone visiting this blog, since the majority of us do not have an academic position and many of us are not involved in academia at all. By this definition, we are not permitted academic freedom, the ability, by the original article’s definition, “to question and test received wisdom”. This is worrying precedent. What is precisely material that “deemed to incite people to use violence”? Would teaching the French revolution, or indeed, any armed conflict be restricted? The definition could effectively censor anything if worked hard enough. As Thornton points out, the material that caused the initial arrests was not considered illegal by the police, since the two were released without charge. Hence the committee would have surely passed the documents the entire system was set up to prevent! And if not, why would a committee possibly be able to assess, without some formal training in the operation of real terrorist recruiters, what material would ‘set people off’? It seems to me that the reasons for this policy are two-fold. To spy on researchers, particularly those who are interested in controversial subject matter. This is not because material would really ‘incite’ people to violence, but is a form of legal protection by the university against lawyers and journalists who might discover students reading controversial material on a course where the idea is to understand a difficult subject, terrorism. Second, it is so the University can be seen to be ‘doing something’, that ‘lessons have been learnt’ in the aftermath of the arrests. Yet, lessons clearly have not been learnt. It was the climate of fear that this vetting endorses that dovetails with the government endorsed programme of spying on Muslim students that led to the arrests in the first place, arrests that have had a severe and horrible effect on people’s lives. Such a policy will only increase such a climate. How long until similar arrests occur? Sadly, they have already occurred. No, lessons have certainly not been learnt: we are still arresting Muslim students with no justification on vanishingly thin evidence, imprisoning them without charge for days then attempting to throw them out of the country despite the fact nothing is found.

Amrit Wilson, a representative of a campaign that is fighting on behalf of the students, told a fringe meeting at the University and College Union congress that some of the students had been arrested after they were overheard discussing “something suspicious”.

“They were talking about a wedding,” he said.

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