Sacking Sandwell lecturer damages equality and free speech

By Savi Hensman
June 14, 2019

A black lecturer in the West Midlands was sacked after writing 'racist' on a poster about the controversial counter-extremism programme Prevent. The case raises serious concerns about victimisation for trade union activism and opposing discrimination, as well as free speech.

Though he apologised, Sandwell College dismissed Dave Muritu. Managers reportedly claimed his actions involved “serious damage to college property” and “use of inappropriate language” and constituted gross misconduct.

Yet defacing a piece of paper, which could be replaced at barely any cost, would not seem to deserve more than a verbal warning. The heavy-handed overreaction is especially concerning since educational institutions (especially further and higher) are supposed to teach critical thinking as a basis for knowledge.

Victimisation for trade unionism and seeking racial equality

As well as teaching mathematics, Muritu was the Branch Secretary for the University and College Union. In recent years he had led industrial action at the further education college. According to UCU’s new general secretary, Jo Grady, it is difficult to see the decision as anything other than “victimisation of a trade union officer”.

This would be against the law as well as unjust in undermining workers’ rights. Over 6,000 people have signed a petition calling for Muritu's reinstatement. Strike action is possible.

A possible additional breach of the law by the employer connects with Prevent’s history and purpose. While the aim of reducing the risk of terrorism is to be welcomed, the policy of putting pressure on many public service staff to identify people drawn to ‘extremism’ has been widely questioned.

On the whole Muslims – mainly from ethnic minority communities – have been targeted, though after the programme was criticised, white youth with other kinds of far-right connections have also been referred.

In some cases, Prevent has helped people at risk of being drawn into forms of fundamentalism that distort religion in the quest for power or other damaging ideologies. But there is plentiful evidence of its ill effects. Too often, extra stress has been placed on people already facing racism.

What is more, the policy may be counterproductive, alienating minorities further from wider society and frightening them into avoiding discussions in front of teachers, youth workers and others. So adults who might have helped to explore dubious ideas held by young people they support, and shown them alternatives, might be unable to gain their trust and talk with them. Also many false alarms may leave the authorities with less time to investigate people who are actually dangerous.

There have been plentiful news reports of the kinds of ways in which Prevent has gone wrong. The 13-year-old son of Ifhat Smith was terrified after being interrogated by school officials on whether he supported Isis. In a discussion in a French class about environmental activism, he had used the word “eco-terrorist” in a classroom discussion about environmental activists.

Even staff working with terminally ill patients have been trained to spot signs of ‘radicalisation’. A growing body of research has shown the worrying extent of the problem.

For example a three-year study has found that many Muslim students across the UK are self-censoring and disengaging from university life. According to another researcher, Muslims find themselves under surveillance in everyday life in ways which “regardless of intent, reinforce and reproduce racism” and “normalise and mainstream notions of Islamic threat and Muslim barbarity.”

College authorities are obliged to put Prevent into effect even if it is racially discriminatory. However under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to victimise someone for flagging up what they genuinely believe is discrimination on grounds such as race or sex  This may perhaps mean that excessive punishment for Dave Muritu’s minor disciplinary offence is against the law.

In a similar way, many in public services were required to create a “hostile environment” for numerous people long settled in Britain from the Caribbean or elsewhere. The 'Windrush generation' scandal, and harsh racial discrimination this led to, is now well-known, even if the problem has not been resolved. Staff who protested earlier that it was racist should have been protected for doing so.

Freedom of expression

In addition, freedom of expression, as well as being part of a widely accepted universal human rights ethical framework, is covered under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Free speech is not absolute: for instance hate speech and threats are not allowed. More broadly, there may be acts which might have a discriminatory effect – or which, it could be argued, might get in the way of what might be described as conviviality, when people with diverse identities and beliefs live fruitfully together.

This concept, known in mediaeval times, has received much attention in recent decades, including in faith communities. It may be relevant to building and sustaining community among staff and students in educational institutions. According to Hans Morten Haugen, in “building inclusive communities faced with economic strictures, power abuse, violence, legal restrictions and mental bigotry, which can create tensions and exclude persons”, conviviality – the art and practice of living together – involves respect, relationality and reciprocity.

I think this might be relevant to some current debates regarding free speech on campuses. For example, I believe that atheists who regard religion as a source of evil should have spaces to voice their views about my own faith, Christianity. However Christian students and indeed staff who may be far from home and lonely, or from parts of the world where persecution is rife, should not have to walk past defaced notices for Christmas celebrations or services. Sensitivity may be needed about what is expressed where and how.

Similarly if some people, of any faith or none, wish to question lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) identity, it should be remembered that this touches on the innermost reality of others. So careful thought may be needed by senior staff to balance freedoms and take account of vulnerability. While discussion and debate may help in truth-seeking and mutual learning, if people feel personally attacked, they may retreat into rival ‘camps’ and be less likely to hear one another.

However verbally attacking a government policy, as opposed to a set of people, is clearly not hate speech. Even if a staff member might be ticked off for writing on a poster, I cannot see how being openly critical of Prevent could be judged as seriously disrupting inclusive community life, though it might annoy some people.

So the sacking of Dave Muritu would appear to be potentially unlawful and certainly morally wrong on various grounds. It is to be hoped that the college authorities back down and reinstate him – and that leaders of educational institutions do more to promote equality, good employment practice and a sense of being valued for all.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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