Friday, 19 December 2008

Ignoring the value of liberty

Sometimes, too often for comfort, there is cause for concern that those in positions of authority do not attach much value to liberty of thought, word and deed, not for its instrumental benefits, though they are many, but as a good in itself. Someone must be protected, or standards must be upheld, even if liberty is trampled on in the process. Here are two recent examples.

The General Teaching Council has issued for consultation a draft code of conduct for teachers. It can be found at http://www.opm.co.uk/gtc/

As well as containing the usual extensive but vacuous reformulations of the obvious injunctions to know your subject and teach it well, it requires teachers to “uphold and maintain standards of behaviour both inside and outside school that are appropriate given their membership of an important and responsible profession” (page 22). The manifest danger of these words is that they would leave a teacher open to disciplinary action because he or she got drunk, attended sado-masochistic clubs or did any one of a range of other things which were perfectly legal but which would attract the disapproval of the more censorious members of our society. This is an appalling interference with liberty. If a teacher drinks to the extent that it affects the quality of his or her teaching, then he or she can be disciplined for that failure, with no need to refer to his or her private life. If, like Professor Unrat, he or she develops a taste for Der blaue Engel, that should not be the authorities' business, even if the students turn out to be there too, or are peeping through the window.

The bossy turn of mind of the authorities, and their disregard for the value of liberty, is revealed by two quotations in the report of the story in the Times on 19 December 2008. Sarah Stephens, Director of Policy at the Teaching Council, said: “It [the draft code] gives greater clarity about what it means to act as a role model, and about a teacher’s conduct outside the classroom”. Keith Bartley, the Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council, said that teachers could be found guilty of unacceptable conduct without breaking the law – for example by belonging to a party that held racist views. He also said “We’re saying to teachers that, as individuals, they have to consider their place in society. There’s a sense that this [code] has to reflect society’s expectations of the people to whom we commit our children”.

Astonishingly, the code also goes on about the value of diversity and of non-discrimination (on page 14). Presumably only diversity of acceptable types is to be valued.

The second example comes from the Daily Mail, on 19 December 2008. Bob Singh, a shopkeeper in Port Talbot, received a visit from a police officer who warned him that some of the jokes he had for many years included on leaflets advertising special offers might be offensive. According to the police, he was “instructed to withdraw the leaflets”. The examples of jokes given in the newspaper were not very subtle, but only the most ridiculously sensitive person could find them offensive. In any case, it is simply not the police's job to instruct people to withdraw leaflets. I have a lot of respect for the police, but not when they act as the parish censor. If only the officer had stopped to ask himself “What about freedom of speech?”, or even, to put it in legalistic terms, “What about Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights?”. At least the article drew people's attention to the wonderful Campaign Against Political Correctness, www.capc.co.uk

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