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When the police replace librarians

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What the Police appear to be saying is that you can be given the all-clear as a bona fide researcher of terror material in the morning – then re-arrested the same evening for the same offence. Surely not, one might think, but that possibility is within the bounds of the Law.

It doesn’t help that the list of materials that could assist a terrorist is very wide. It would certainly encompass broad swathes of chemistry, physics and biology – as well as current military training. This has therefore provoked the accusation, in some quarters, that the Act is likely to be applied in a selective and racist fashion – with individuals whose skin is not quite white being far more likely to be asked to justify what is on their bookshelves or hard drive.

What of the University Authorities? One reason this case continues to sputter along is the Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University, Sir Colin Campbell, who also refuses to lie down.

In July, he stated: “There is no 'right' to access and research terrorist materials. Those who do so run the risk of being investigated and prosecuted on terrorism charges. Equally, there is no 'prohibition' on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so 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). This is the law and applies to all universities."

Sir Colin is very keen to claim that the case did not touch upon issues of "academic freedom". In a letter to the Times, he claims that “the University of Nottingham has always fully embraced this principle and continues to do so. Claims to the contrary … are careless, entirely false and bear little relation to the facts.”

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? But perhaps, by opting for what might be considered the “Nuremberg Defence”, he is missing the point. Yes, this is the law, but one might have hoped for greater insight into the question of whether it should be so from a senior member of a university. Sir Colin is buying into the notion that there are “dangerous books” out there – and the only way to avoid danger is to check with authority first. But once the authorities start to dictate what books or documents we may possess, we are on a slippery slope. ®

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