Academics won't be asked to act as 'police snoops'

November 11, 2005

While London universities plough cash into high-tech protection in the wake of the July attacks, there are fears the terror Bill will criminalise staff and students

Fears that academics would be asked by their universities to "police" campus extremism were eased this week, but fresh doubts about academic freedom were raised by the Government's Terrorism Bill.

The authors of new guidelines for universities about "dealing with hate crimes and intolerance" published on Tuesday reassured staff that they would not be expected to monitor their students' political activities or beliefs.

Instead, the guidelines set out the broad legal context in which universities will decide in future how to respond to protests, the expression of extreme political views and complaints about intolerance or religious or ethnic hate crimes.

"Any suggestion that we are encouraging snooping and some kind of police state is wrong," said Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University, who oversaw the drafting of the guidelines for Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, in her speech to the Universities UK conference this summer, called on universities to defend the "moderate majority" of students by "identifying and confronting" extremist behaviour on campus.

Universities had a duty to report "unacceptable behaviour" or suspicions about criminal acts to the police, Ms Kelly said.

This week, David Renton of lecturers' union Natfhe, who also sat on the UUK-Scop panel behind the new guidelines, said there was "no pandemic" of extremism on Britain's campuses.

Nevertheless, the publication of the guidelines was overshadowed by the growing debate about the potential impact of the Bill on academic freedom.

Drummond Bone, the president of UUK, and Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, engaged in a sharp exchange about the anti-terror proposals during a press briefing about the new guidelines earlier in the week.

Professor Bone said that there were "grave concerns" about three clauses of the Bill relating to the "glorification" of terrorism. He added that the Bill was drafted "too loosely".

"Academic freedom flourishes best when there is broad tolerance," he said, urging the Government to rethink the Bill.

Mr Rammell said: "I don't think those fears are justified. The clear issue is incitement of others to commit acts of terrorism, not legitimate academic activity."

As The Times Higher went to press, MPs were voting on the Bill amid fears that some of its proposals would put chemists, librarians and social workers at risk of prosecution.

But before the vote, there were signs that pressure from universities and lecturers' unions had prompted a government climbdown.

Ministers tabled an amendment to the Bill that would put greater emphasis on deliberate intent and recklessness in glorifying terrorism, a move seen as protecting academic debate.

There were no signs of government moves on other clauses in the Bill.

Could you fall foul of the law?

While London universities plough cash into high-tech protection in the wake of the July attacks, there are fears the terror Bill will criminalise staff and students

Academics could fall foul of Clauses 1, 2 and 6 of the Terrorism Bill.

Clause 1 potentially outlaws a range of activities deemed to glorify terrorism. The Government is seeking to amend this to specify "reckless" glorification.

Clause 2 could affect librarians and academics as it refers to the dissemination of terrorist materials. The opposition parties have tabled amendments that would protect academics and librarians.

A lecturer at a London university who teaches the history of the Middle East said she feared that the use of primary source materials - such as video clips of Osama bin Laden's speeches or literature produced by Hamas or Islamic Jihad - would be restricted by the Bill.

"If you want students to look at what individuals or organisations who have used violence for political ends say in their own words, you could be caught under the Bill as disseminating material that glorifies terrorism, even if the aim of the teaching is to make students think critically," she said.

Clause 6 of the Bill could affect chemists as it refers to training in the use of noxious substances. Opposition parties have again tabled amendments.

The Association of University Teachers has warned that this clause risks criminalising academics if they "know or suspect" that a student intends to use knowledge of chemicals for terrorist ends.

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