Fear of anti-terror laws leads to a growing climate of self-censorship

Lecturers steer students away from some topics and get material vetted. Melanie Newman reports

November 6, 2008

Academics are turning to the Higher Education Academy to vet their teaching material and reading lists amid concern that they may fall foul of anti-terrorism legislation.

Bela Arora, academic co-ordinator for politics at the HEA's subject network for sociology, anthropology and politics, said the requests were a sign of growing unease among academics after the arrest earlier this year of a University of Nottingham postgraduate student for downloading an al-Qaeda training manual.

Dr Arora said that as well as requests to vet materials, she had also come across "examples of students choosing dissertation topics and being told 'best not to go there'?" by self-censoring academics.

After the arrest, and subsequent release without charge, of Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir over his possession of an al-Qaeda handbook, Nottingham's vice-chancellor at that time, Sir Colin Campbell, issued a statement to all staff warning that if they accessed terrorist materials, they "run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges".

He added that those using material for research "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".

Dr Arora said: "I am being sent module guides and asked for advice on whether they are OK. I reply that although I teach terrorism studies, I don't think I should be engaging in a vetting process - that would disempower academics even more."

Times Higher Education reported earlier this year that lecturers were adding disclaimers to their module guides, in response to what Dr Arora described as a growing climate of self-censorship.

As a result, terrorism studies would become "increasingly sanitised", she said, and the next generation of counterterrorism policy advisers to the Government would be ill-informed.

Vanessa Pupavac, a lecturer in international relations at Nottingham, said: "We are told that terrorism is one of the greatest security threats faced by our society. Yet we as academics are becoming inhibited and nervous of allowing students to study terrorist propaganda."

In the latest development at Nottingham, the School of Politics and International Relations' ethics committee was asked to review the reading list of a lecturer in international security and terrorism on the grounds it was necessary to protect both the lecturer and the school.

The move was resisted by the academic involved, but some staff remain concerned about plans by the university for a new institution-wide ethics committee that would consider issues such as the study of terrorism.

A Nottingham spokesman confirmed that the university was considering setting up an ethics committee to oversee the work of school and faculty-based committees. "Many other Russell Group universities, such as Sheffield, University College London and Birmingham, have such university-level ethics committees," the spokesman added.


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