The University of Nottingham has been the centre of recent controversy following the suspension of Dr Rod Thornton, after he wrote an article criticising the University’s handling of an incident in 2008 in which Rizwaan Sabir, a Masters student, and Hicham Yezza, a member of staff, were both arrested by counter-terrorism officers.

Sabir had downloaded an ‘al-Qaeda training manual’ from a US government website, along with other publicly available documents, with the aim of using them as research for his PhD application. He then passed these documents on to Yezza, his friend and mentor, who had been assisting him with his application. After senior members of the University discovered the documents, they informed the police and Sabir and Yezza were arrested and held for six days under the Terrorism Act 2000. They were released without charge, although Yezza was immediately re-arrested on an unrelated charge over visa irregularities.

In his paper, initially published by the British International Studies Association (BISA), Dr Thornton argues that the documents that triggered the row were not “illegal” but were in fact considered to be “required reading” for anyone studying terrorism.

His article goes on to claim that the University gave police “erroneous evidence” and that “untruth piled on untruth until a point was reached where the Home Office itself farcically came to advertise the case as ‘a major Islamist plot’”

In response to his suspension, an open letter was sent to The Guardian by 67 academics from around the globe, expressing that they were “deeply concerned” by the suspension of Dr Rod Thornton. Facebook groups have been created in support of the lecturer and on 12th May a protest was held on campus outside Hallward library.

The letter, signed by academics including Professor Noam Chomsky, argues, “the claims [Dr Thornton] makes are very serious and should be subjected to a full and proper inquiry. They cannot be ignored”. The letter also calls for his “immediate reinstatement”. The protest at Hallward library, organised over Facebook, made similar demands with Rizwaan Sabir, now a PhD student at Strathclyde University, speaking in defence of Thornton.

The University is currently conducting its internal inquiry into the suspension, and has stated that Thornton’s accusations are “baseless”. In their statement, they made clear that academic freedom was “not the freedom to defame your coworkers and attempt to destroy their reputations as honest, fair and reasonable individuals.” The article has now been taken down by BISA.

Writing for the Guardian, Hicham Yezza stated that the paper was “meticulously detailed and footnoted”, but with the university calling it “highly defamatory”, it remains to be seen as to just how much truth is contained in it. Thorton claimed in his article that “nothing I say here [in this paper] is untrue – it can all be checked against documentary evidence”. In an email exchange with a Nottingham lecturer about whom an erroneous claim was made in the paper, Thornton admitted that he had based his claim on second hand information, with the lecturer in question responding that “What you say… is untrue and the absence of any documentary evidence should have meant that you did not make such a false claim. But you go ahead and make it like any gutter journalist”.

The Students’ Union released a press statement in response to the suspension, saying, “We would like to assure students that the Students’ Union is aware of the issues at hand, and has policy to support freedom of expression. The issue at hand is affected by various factors, in particular staffing matters, something which is the business of the University. That said, we are keeping a close eye on the situation and we will strive to ensure that there is as little disruption to their university experience as possible”.

Ben McCabe and Fiona Crosby

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