Should we let racists speak?

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Andrew Mourant reports on the dilemma facing managers in racially-divided northern towns.

In towns where racial tension is high and extremist views inflammatory, the politics of free speech and managing debate becomes complicated. Some feel the declaration attributed to Voltaire - "I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - is, however noble, a recipe for trouble.

Few know the problems better than Peter Jones, a management studies lecturer and official for the lecturers' union Natfhe at Burnley College.

As council elections loom closer he senses growing unease in a town where last May the far right British National party won three seats, and next week is contesting another 13.

An active member of the Anti-Nazi League and of mixed race, Mr Jones had a dilemma last year on discovering that one of Burnley's new BNP councillors, Carol Hughes, was a student on a short management course. There were calls from some not to teach her.

"We said in Burnley that where any lecturer refuses to teach a member of a racist organisation, the branch would make representations to management to see if alternative arrangements could be made," said Mr Jones.

"We would support any branch member who refused to teach members of a fascist organisation. If anyone promoted views contrary to the college's equality policy, then we'd expect the college to remove or discipline that student."

No such impasse has arisen at Burnley yet. "The lecturer was quite happy to teach Councillor Hughes," says Mr Jones. "But if anyone takes a stand, the whole union will become involved." He fears in the current political climate that may happen soon - and that extremist views will start to emerge in students' written work.

Last year, after being out in Burnley campaigning with anti-Nazi supporters, Mr Jones returned to college to find a BNP leaflet in his pigeon-hole. "It was quite disturbing," he says. He has been told by a colleague that a BNP member is in one of his classes, although he says the student has yet to express his political views.

"My view is that everyone has the right to education," says Mr Jones.

"There are legitimate discussions about what's going on: the war; asylum-seekers; refugees; the economy - and we deal with that.

"We've had robust discussion in class - I let it flow a bit but nothing came out that I thought beyond the limit. Students need to debate. That's not the same as allowing members of fascist organisations to propound their views."

It is an uncomfortable area for college managers, and one that Burnley principal John Smith prefers not to discuss.

"I don't think it is helpful," he said. "I'm not aware of any political debates in Burnley College. I know all about the realities in the town. But we don't want any more articles that link in everyone's mind the college with the BNP."

The "realities" he refers to might shock people from more racially harmonious areas. Peter Jones has Asian friends he describes as "westernised", "but they don't go into town on a Saturday night," he said.

This unease is well-known 20 miles away in Oldham, where the BNP, buttressed by a substantial vote in the 2001 general election, is contesting 12 council seats. This political support followed some of Britain's worst rioting in recent years, centred on Glodwick, a predominantly Pakistani community.

Oldham College draws students from all corners of town. Principal Steven Booth is highly protective of them. "We keep journalists away from students and that works very well," he said. "Things are incredibly peaceful because of the work we have done - we have a policy of no posters and no factions."

As Oldham is a technical college offering vocational courses, it does not have, says Mr Booth, lessons in which BNP sympathisers might get the chance to discuss their political leanings.

Two years ago, FE Focus visited after the general election when the community was still bruised. At that time Andy Forbes, in charge of student support - and half-Jamaican - thought that the college could cope with people saying why they voted BNP. "If people aren't abusive or personal then they are entitled to express an opinion," he said. "Otherwise, you get into political correctness where people feel legitimate views are suppressed for no reason."

He noticed a range of views emerging at the college's annual competition, Celebrating Diversity, in which students expressed what their ethnicity meant to them through various artforms.

"We had pieces reflecting how upsetting it was to live in a town with these tensions," he said.

He suggested a liberal approach to debate may relieve tension. "The failure to have this sort of discussion in the past is part of the issue. There might be a heated exchange of views but just being heard can release a lot of tension."

Two years on, Oldham education chiefs are staying tight-lipped on the issue. Numerous calls to Oldham's education director Chris Berry asking about policy on classroom discussion of BNP-related matters went unanswered.

Two weeks after The TES's first inquiry, a council press officer said:

"We've spoken to the LEA and they aren't prepared to comment at all."

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