As AUT personal cases co-ordinator I deal with many cases brought to the AUT by members. These are of many different kinds but what unites them is the need for confidentiality. It is therefore with an enormous degree of unease - though I have the full permission of the member involved - that I am taking the unprecedented step of informing colleagues in the University of the details of a particular case. I feel obliged to do this both in order to correct the gross distortions about the case which are being spread and because certain actions taken represent a high degree of unfairness on the part of the University.
At 7.30 am on Tuesday 1 March, police went to the house of an AUT member and arrested him on suspicion of breaching the Computer Misuse Act 1990. They searched his house and removed all computer equipment, including that belonging to his young daughter. Later the same morning, the police arrived at the University accompanied by an employee of the University's legal firm, and removed all computer equipment and other material from his office. After holding him behind bars for several hours, followed by a brief interview regarding his accessing someone else's email, the police told him they had no wish to bring charges and would drop the matter if he accepted a caution, which he agreed to. He was told that the matter was now closed, and his computer equipment was returned.
The following day, 2 March, he received a letter from the Vice Chancellor stating that he was suspended, and prohibited from coming onto campus, pending an investigation 'which concerns possible criminal offences of computer misuse'.
I was appointed by the AUT to represent the member. I discovered that the police had acted on a request from the University, and that they had been asked to investigate a complaint lodged with the University some eleven months earlier by the member's former partner that he had accessed her emails without permission. She had not herself asked for it to become a police matter. There was no suggestion that the alleged offence had been repeated in the intervening period, and the parties had had no contact since.
It appeared to me that for the Vice Chancellor to suspend in these circumstances was a wholly disproportionate reaction. AUT has been involved in a number of cases in which suspension has been used, and we have often agreed that such action was necessary. The Vice Chancellor does have the discretionary power to suspend under certain circumstances, but clearly this discretion must be exercised in a reasonable way. Although suspension is represented as not being a disciplinary measure, it is clearly punitive in its effects, and in practice it is unlikely that others will interpret it in a neutral way. What has always in the past been construed as a reasonable basis for suspension is the possibility that failure to suspend could prejudice or impede an investigation. Cases where this might apply are where there is a real possibility of the parties coming into the kind of contact which would entail some kind of risk, or where there is a danger of the member repeating the offence. There was no evidence to suggest any risk, and the danger of repetition was irrelevant, since the alleged offence had nothing to do with being on or off campus. In addition suspension was sure to cause difficulties for students and colleagues. So, on the face of it, suspending the member in this case may seem something of a mystery. But does the mystery become less if I say, for those who do not already know, that the name of the suspended individual is Colwyn Williamson?
The letter received by Mr Williamson gave the complaint associated with the police investigation as the reason for suspension. Given the nature of the complaint this was an excessive reaction at the time. Now that the police have concluded their investigation with the result described above, continued suspension seems even more unconscionable. What the Vice Chancellor is now saying is that the University wishes to investigate suspicions that Mr Williamson may have compromised the University's computing system by "hacking" into the Registry. This was something which had not been alleged to the police and which, as far as I can discover, is entirely without foundation. I do not know that anyone has asked the Vice Chancellor to investigate Mr Williamson for hacking into the Registry and, if someone had, an investigation would have to be based on more than just suspicion, particularly if the suspension is somehow connected to this. I have suggested to the University that it will in fact be impossible for suspension not to be seen as being connected to another current dispute. I have also asked the University to relax its ruling that Mr Williamson give three days' notice and be under escort if he visits the campus on trade union business. This has been refused.
Many people will know that I have not always seen eye to eye with Mr Williamson on important issues that have arisen within the University and the AUT. But I am not prepared to stand idly by and watch this colleague - or any colleague - be subjected to oppressive behaviour which may amount to victimisation. I am a firm believer, as I am sure most of us are, in the well-known maxim about good men doing nothing. The Vice Chancellor has agreed to keep the suspension under review and, given the circumstances, I renew my request for it to be lifted.
AUT Personal Cases Co-ordinator
Today a Students' Union representative on Senate was charged with an offence under the university's internal disciplinary procedure for calling the Vice-Chancellor a "coward" for dissolving the last meeting of Senate in the face of a student demonstration against CW's suspension. It is understood that the professor who compared dissolving the meeting with Hitler's dissolution of the Reichstag is not to be charged.
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Last updated: 4th April 2005