17th June 2005 at 01:00
Bill Hicks believes in challenging prejudices in the TES forums, not sweeping them under the carpet

If I were writing this column for a website rather than for a print magazine, I could make it interactive. I could say, there are loads of interesting threads this week, list a few of them, and ask you to tell me which I should write about. Then I'd sit back, wait for your votes, and then fire away.

But as this is Friday magazine, and not tes.co.uk, I'm not giving you any choice. I will write about two very different threads. At least once it's published you'll be able to tell me in the forums how I got it all wrong.

So here goes. The first thread is titled: "Government wants to stifle free speech on religion", and is about the proposed new law to ban incitement to religious hatred.

Juanito quotes the National Secular Society, which fears the bill will pose "a severe risk to free expression in Britain. Those who denounce religion or a particular religion as untrue and dangerous will be at risk of being jailed."

This interests us directly as we encourage freedom of expression within the law on our forums. As you can imagine, this has dipped us into hot water on many occasions.

For example, the heated arguments that erupted over the legacy of the late Pope John Paul II led to some heavy criticism that we were condoning anti-Catholic views. There was outrage that we allowed the use of the word "papist" for Catholic, just as there was outrage that we did not delete the word "pikey" in a discussion on Travellers.

Our feeling - right or wrong - is that it is better to have prejudice and bigotry expressed and challenged, rather than brush it under the carpet. An expression of strong opinion against something is not the same thing as incitement to hatred: where the latter occurs, we intervene.

Back on our thread, snow-monkey quotes detail from the new bill. Apparently it would not automatically criminalise criticism of "the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers; for example by claiming that they are false or harmful".

It also seems that "intent" to stir up hatred will be a criterion for prosecution, which makes the proposed law sound rather like our own approach to policing these forums.

Clearly, there are interesting times ahead. Whatever the outcome, I hope that in future teachers will not be prevented from discussing topics such as my second thread for this week. It's in the music forum, where Purpletroll wanted to know if "anyone used a karaoke machine successfully as a learning tool". Stevep's response has a religious sting to it: "Sounds like my idea of hell on earth!"

Quite so, Steve, but watch your language.

Bill Hicks is editor of the TES website. www.tes.co.ukstaffroom

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