Attacking Academic Freedom: The Case of The Nottingham Two and a Whistleblower

by Alf Gunvald Nilsen, University of Bergen, Norway

At the University of Nottingham (UoN), recent events suggest that academic freedom – the freedom to carry out research and to present the result of that research in the public domain without fear of disciplinary action, dismissal, or infringements upon our civil liberties – may very well have become a casualty in the so-called ‘war on terror’.

On 4 May this year, Dr. Rod Thornton, a former British soldier and an expert on international terrorism and counter-insurgency, was suspended from his job as lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR), UoN. The suspension was a result of Dr. Thornton publishing a paper in which he claims that the upper echelons of the UoN were directly responsible for the wrongful arrest of two innocent Muslim men – Rizwaan Sabir, an MA student at the SPIR and Hicham Yezza, a member of staff at the School of Modern Languages and editor of the political journal Ceasefire – as suspected terrorists three years ago, in May 2008.

The Nottingham Two were held for six days after their arrest, and then released without charge. The arrests followed the discovery by one of Yezza’s colleagues of a document entitled “The Al Qaida Training Manual” and two academic articles on the desktop of his office computer. Sabir originally downloaded the documents for his MA dissertation on radical Islam and then sent them to his friend Yezza in order to get his views on the materials. Crucially, Sabir retrieved the Al Qaida Manual from the US Department of Justice website.

In his paper, Dr. Thornton details how, instead of carrying out a risk assessment when the documents were found – something that the UoN is obliged to do according to government guidelines – university management directly contacted the police. As a result of which the two innocent men were arrested. Not only this: Thornton also shows how, after the men’s release, university management engaged in a concerted effort to discredit the two men and their supporters within the university so as to silence their challenge to the UoN’s claim that the research material was illegal and the arrests were justified.

The UoN has labeled Thornton’s claims as ‘baseless’, and argues that the report defames his colleagues. However, they have failed to provide the public with a single piece of evidence for this claim. In other words, the purpose of Dr. Thornton’s suspension seems to be that of silencing a whistleblower.

Dr. Thornton’s paper appears as a meticulously researched report, which marshals solid evidence for its claims. Over 112 pages, he subjects a barrage of internal university communications, collected under the Freedom of Information Act over a period of three years, to forensic analysis. It is also worth noticing that before publishing the paper, Thornton had exhausted all internal avenues for addressing his grievances against the UoN.

It is precisely for this reason that Dr. Thornton’s report, and his criticism of the UoN and its conduct, does not deserve to be met with yet another attack on academic freedom. If justice is to be done in this case, Dr. Thornton must be immediately reinstated, and the UoN must submit to an independent public inquiry of the claims made against it in his report.

Please join Noam Chomsky and others in giving support to these demands by signing the S.W.A.N. petition at

Norway, Volume 1, Issue 5

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