UK union leader fears legislation could spawn 'a 21st-century Stasi'

December 23, 2005

Higher education unions meeting in Melbourne this month expressed concern over anti-terrorism laws in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US

Steve Wharton, the new president of Britain's Association of University Teachers, warned that the Terrorism Bill before Parliament had wide-ranging implications for academics.

He said that as a teacher of French politics and society, he risked charges of advocating revolution if the Bill were enacted.

"Academics know we have a responsibility to engage in debate, to present our students with the tools that enable them to extract, analyse and synthesise information," Dr Wharton said. "Without putting a spirit of inquiry into the minds of our students, we cannot have a free and open debate."

Academic freedom meant freedom within the law to challenge received wisdom and to put forward unpopular views, he said. But if the law were changed, then academic freedom would be removed.

"The Australian legislation has uncanny parallels with those in Britain, given their ill-defined interpretation of 'terrorism' and the consequences for university teaching," Dr Wharton stressed.

The burden of proof under the UK legislation shifted responsibility from state to defendant. Dr Wharton said that had he given an al-Qaeda document as part of a unit on terrorism to a student and the police stopped him, the student could be held without trial.

"Another part of the Bill concerns dissemination of material, which brings in university libraries. If a library lent a book in which a statement seen as promoting terrorism appeared, it would be guilty of dissemination."

The legislation also required that if an individual suspected a person, such as an academic, was providing information that might subsequently be used in committing a terrorist act, then it was incumbent on the individual to report that. On a mere suspicion, a scholar could be reported and detained, Dr Wharton said.

"This could turn academics into part of a 21st-century Stasi, where everyone spies on everyone else."

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