Whistleblowers: Northumbria threatens academic over email

April 11, 2003

Northumbria University has removed anti-war material from the internet site of one of its leading psychology academics after warning that his messages could be offensive to students who support the war in Iraq or who have relatives in the region. It has also threatened him with disciplinary action for the misuse of email.

The academic, Martyn Dyer-Smith, said the university had fundamentally violated his freedom of speech and academic freedom with "the equivalent of book burning" after deleting what he said included legitimate teaching material and articles about the war relevant to his field of psychology.

The university this week said its executive was investigating the issue and might have to revise its regulations.

Dr Dyer-Smith, principal psychologist and head of the social science division at Northumbria, is the chair of his local Stop the War campaign.

He clashed with the university's information technology director, Jed Woodhouse, last month when he openly defied an edict from the vice-chancellor, Kel Fidler, who said in a memo to all staff that "the university's email facilities should not be used for communicating views on [the Iraq conflict]".

He informed his line manager he would continue to relay anti-war messages to students - and in one message offered to pay the bus fare of students who wanted to join anti-war protests in London - but was told by Mr Woodhouse to stop immediately.

Mr Woodhouse said that his emails breached the Data Protection Act 1998, because the staff and student email addresses held by the university counted as "personal data" under the terms of the act, and this data could be used only for tightly defined purposes, such as for general communications about university business and for the purposes of education and research. The addresses could not be used for the transmission of messages unconnected with university business.

Mr Woodhouse also warned that Dr Dyer-Smith could be in breach of the university's regulations for email use. These state that "the use of resources must be restricted to projects concerned only with the user's own studies, research and teaching and other university purposes".

The rules also forbade "the use of university resources for the creation or transmission of material that is 'grossly offensive'", he said. While this may seem an extreme description, he said, a student who had complained about Dr Dyer-Smith's emails was distressed. He said that other potential recipients who might take offence could include persons holding strong views of an opposite nature (ie pro-war).

Dr Dyer-Smith, alerted by a student, discovered that several pages from his personal webpages on the university's website had been removed. This included an essay on war myths, which he said formed part of his teaching material for psychology courses and English teaching, and an article on war propaganda from the allies.

He said: "I was quite willing to remove stuff that the management regarded as political. I was quite prepared to consider removing stuff that might make students anxious. What I am not prepared to have happening is what happened - material of mine being deleted without my knowledge. This is equivalent to book burning. As it stands it looks like my rights, as well as my files, have been tampered with. This is a serious matter as far as I am concerned."

A spokeswoman for the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards said: "We are in testing times for academic freedom of speech. The ground rules have not changed. Lawful freedom of expression needs protecting especially vigorously when so many civil rights are being eroded in the name of the 'war against terrorism'."

The university said: "The issue arose from the unsolicited circulation of material by email to all staff and students of one of the the university's campuses, contrary to the provisions of the Data Protection Act, not about teaching material. Complaints were received from students.

"In the light of this case, however, the university management agreed to consider whether there is a need to update the university's regulations on such matters. The board of governors agreed to remit the matter to the university executive for consideration and report back in due course."

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