Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/08/15/nott_uni_update/

Did we say you can read that?

When the police replace librarians

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Law, 15th August 2008 07:02 GMT

An issue that refuses to go away is whether some academic research now needs a license from the local police. Regular readers may remember the case of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, which we reported on in May.

This kicked off when Mr Sabir, a postgraduate student at Nottingham University, asked Mr Yezza to help him out by downloading a document described as an “Al Qaeda Training Manual”.

Bad move. The matter was reported to the University authorities, who informed the police. They arrested the two and held them for the best part of a week. At the end of that time Rizwaan Sabir was released but Hicham Yezza was transferred to the custody of the immigration authorities for deportation. Inquiries had turned up some irregularities in his status.

Outwardly, this is unfortunate but explicable. The University authorities decided that they were not a competent body to investigate, so involved the police, and the police did their job. Events hinge on section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which makes it an offence to possess material that might be useful to someone planning to carry out terrorist offences. But never fear, “it is a defence for a person charged … to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession”.

In the course of the year, various courts have applied their minds to what might constitute a “reasonable excuse”, with much debate about whether “reasonable” means any reason that is, well, reasonable – or simply any reason that is not a terrorist reason. Read the judgment in R v. G to work out whether a paranoid schizophrenic delusion may nonetheless be considered “reasonable” for the purposes of this law.

A small storm in a teacup was kicked off by the Times, when their reporting of one judgment led to a sound rap across the knuckles from the DPP.

What then of our students? Initial events may have pursued their own inevitable logic.

It is what follows – and the entire thrust of the law - that is questionable. First, the law: If you possess dodgy material, it is for you to explain why. Parliament could have legislated the other way around - it could have made it a crime to possess such material “with intent”. But it didn’t, so now you must prove yourself innocent.

Following Mr Sabir’s release, the police wrote to him. Allegedly, they warn that he risks re-arrest if found with the manual again and add: "The university authorities have now made clear that possession of this material is not required for the purpose of your course of study nor do they consider it legitimate for you to possess it for research purposes."

This is all very peculiar, and oddly reminiscent of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ (aka Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act 1913), a response to the unsportsmanlike tendency of some suffragettes to go on hunger strike whilst in prison. Multiple deaths would have been a PR disaster. So this Act allowed prisoners to be sent home to fatten up, before being returned to custody.

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. ®