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Universal backing for stand on racists

Phil Baty reports on fierce debate at Natfhe's annual conference

Lecturers' union Natfhe will support unreservedly any member who refuses to teach, or to work with, any known member of the British National Party.

The union's conference in Blackpool voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion asserting lecturers' right not to teach racists as a matter of conscience.

The move has attracted criticism from human-rights groups. Rival union the Association of University Teachers is shying away from a similar call on the grounds of academic freedom, but Natfhe general secretary Paul Mackney said he had "no problem at all" with the motion.

"This is not a free-speech issue," he told The THES . "Where there is BNP activity, you have racial violence. And the threat of violence is not conducive to discussion and academic debate."

The motion was put to the conference jointly by Natfhe's inner-London, East Midlands and North West regions and went unchallenged. It said that the conference recognised the crucial role trade unions and educational institutions must play in countering the growth of organised racism and fascism and instructed the union to fund anti-fascist initiatives and build alliances with other groups to counter "the alarming growth of BNP influence. Conference agrees furthermore to give full support to our members who are refusing to work with, or teach, known members of the BNP."

Mr Mackney acknowledged that the BNP would relish a legal challenge against any teacher refusing to teach a student because of their views, which is likely to be a breach of contract and illegal under human-rights laws.

He said that in some cases, engaging students with racist opinions in academic debate was appropriate. "But there is a big difference between people having views that might be characterised as racist that need to be examined and explored, and people who are organising fascists, sitting in a seminar group where everyone is afraid to speak because they know that outside the seminar room, the person may prefer to settle the issue through violence."

Gareth Crossman, head of policy at human rights charity Liberty, said: "We should be concerned that a teaching union would take such a view. Whatever we think of what the BNP says, it is a legal political party.

"It could be reasonable to exclude an individual BNP member who was disruptive or racist towards staff and students and this affected lessons, as it would be reasonable to act against any disruptive student. But that is very different from this approach.

"Where do you draw the line? If you are strongly pro-Europe, would you refuse to teach members of the UK Independence Party? It was not long ago that people were blacklisted for being members of trade unions, so Natfhe should have a long and hard think about this."

The conference heard speakers from Burnley College, which suffered racial tensions following BNP success in local council elections, and from Greenwich University, which has seen protests against BNP activity on campus.

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