Stop policing the university

With every police-led intervention into campus life, the freedom to debate and argue is diminished.

Dennis Hayes

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Topics Politics

The role of a university is the pursuit of knowledge and truth without fear or favour. The role of the police is the pursuit of criminals. I am a university professor; I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how to catch a thief. In turn, I wouldn’t expect any police officer to understand the academy or academic freedom and the responsibility to promote freedom of speech. So the trend for the police to take a greater interest in events on campus seems to me to be a disturbing one.

The police have had a deservedly bad press recently, most notably with the Hillsborough report exposing the South Yorkshire police force’s lies and cover-ups, followed by similar revelations relating to the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ during the miners’ strike in 1984. Such corrupt practices are hardly a model for truth seeking.

There have also been a series of nonsense situations in which comments have offended vulnerable police officers to such a degree they have had to arrest people. In May 2005, an Oxford student out celebrating the end of his exams was arrested and spent a night in a cell for saying to a police officer ‘Excuse me! Do you realise your horse is gay?’. This year, 17-year-old Reece Messer was arrested at 2.45am on 31 July for tweeting ‘You let your dad down. You let your country down’ about British Olympic diver Tom Daley. And new heights of absurdity were reached with the media and political furore over Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell, who allegedly called Downing Street police officers ‘plebs’. That is fairly mild considering the standard of abuse police officers routinely receive on duty. But that didn’t stop the Police Federation from continuing to stoke the furore until it cost Mitchell his job.

These examples of hypersensitivity to what police officers and their representatives now see as ‘offensive’ speech would mean they would not last five minutes in the heated debates that occur in universities.

The police track record on academic freedom is illustrated by their actions in relation to the case of the Nottingham Two, which began with the arrest of a student (Rizwaan Sabir) and a staff member (Hicham Yezza) in May 2008 after police were called in by management at the University of Nottingham. The university authorities had got into a silly panic after finding a copy of the so-called ‘al-Qaeda training manual’ on a computer, which Sabir had in fact downloaded from a US government website and asked Yezza to print out for him. (The book was also available in local bookshops and the university’s library.) Ultimately, the police have had to pay Sabir damages for false imprisonment. Furthermore, the Observer revealed in July 2012 that officers had ‘made up’ evidence against Sabir. All this, and much more, indicates that the police clearly should have no role as the moderators of academic life. Nothing more needs to be said, you might think.

Yet, while all these recent affronts to freedom of speech were being debated, I recently received an email invitation to a conference called ‘Working in Partnership to Prevent Extremism and Promote Cohesion in Universities and Colleges’. The blurb for this overpriced event declares the day conference to be an ’invaluable opportunity’ to look at how ‘the police and HEIs [higher-education institutions] can work more effectively together’ to ‘safeguard students, staff and the wider community from violent extremism, whilst protecting free speech and lawful academic activities’. I am unsure what these illegal academic activities could be, but if it means criticising current ideas such as ‘institutional racism’, ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘multiculturalism’, then many academics can produce good arguments and compelling evidence that could convince anyone to object to these notions and seek to change the many laws that promote them. That is their right as academics.

In the conference programme, there is no mention of any critical voices, despite the stated concern with ‘balance’ in debate. The organisers’ idea of free speech is obvious, then. But one phrase caught my attention. It was about ‘vulnerable young people’ who needed ‘robust support to enable them to defy extremists’. Who are these ‘vulnerable’ students? In freshers’ week, I walked past the Islamic Society giving out dates from Medina next to the Cheerleading Society practising cheering with pompoms. From there, I went on to a difficult debate with a hundred first-year students and I wondered where all the vulnerable students were.

Such vulnerable students are, of course, a useful figment of the police service’s imagination. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) document, Prevent, Police and Universities, is well worth a read for anyone interested in academic freedom rather than police-supported ‘balance’ in academic life. ACPO has adopted the idea that there are ‘vulnerable’ young people who are at risk of being ‘radicalised’. There is a lot of definition in the document, but none of it makes sense. The list of social and psychological characteristics of a vulnerable young person could capture most people – including, for example, students who might be ‘traumatised’ by world events. The invasion of Iraq, the bombing of Gaza… it seems you would have to be an untouchable and insensate moron not to be radicalised by these events and to want to take action.

The ACPO document recognises that no one wants the police on campus seeking information on Muslims and undermining freedom of speech. It’s not about Muslims, we are told, but about keeping an eye on all extremists, including the English Defence League and animal-rights activists. This claim to be concerned about extremism in general is hard to swallow when the document makes reference to the 30 per cent of convicted terrorists who had been to university; no details are given, but they are mostly Muslims. There is no causal connection here between university attendance and ‘radicalisation’, just the weakest of correlations. And what if there were a degree of causation going on? If one of Britain’s top universities can only produce the hapless ‘underpants’ bomber, why worry?

The innocent people arrested by the police are not mentioned; there is silence on the Nottingham Two. The ACPO paper is also impressive in that it exploits the ambiguity in the word ‘vulnerable’, meaning both those ‘at moral, psychological or social risk’ and those ‘liable to radicalisation’. If the police had ever read Lewis Carroll, they would have learned from Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty that you can’t give words the meaning you choose.

The idea of a ‘vulnerable’ student in the normal sense is a clear articulation of the approach many universities now take to their students. They treat students as if they are incapable of independent autonomous study and offer ‘welcome week’ counselling, well-being events and stress-management courses.

The biggest threat to academic freedom comes from this diminished idea of the student. What the ACPO document shows is that the notion of ‘vulnerability’ is easily exploited to justify intervention by state institutions. Given the police sensitivity to offence, it might help protect academic life if students responded to PC Plod’s invitation to a discussion in a ‘safe space’ with an unwelcoming but freely expressed ‘Police Off!’

Dennis Hayes is the Director of Academics For Academic Freedom.

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Topics Politics