Freedom of expression

The great problem with human rights is that one human right can conflict with another.  These conflicts can become pressing issues in schools.


Exercising religion, the right to worship freely but also the right to express religious views, is a basic right.

 

When a society legislates, as Scotland and the UK are soon likely to do, enabling same-sex marriage, and that legislation is contrary to the ‘great truths’ of one or more religions, conflict follows.

 

Advocates of free speech and human rights must defend an Islamic Mufti’s right to state that, “Gay marriage is an atrocious and obscene act which belongs to unsound nature.”  They must defend the right of a Roman Catholic Cardinal to assert that “… countries where this (i.e. same-sex marriage) is legal are indeed violating human rights,” or that same-sex relationships, formalised by marriage, are “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”.

 

Similarly, if a pupil made such statements in class, his or her right to freedom of conscience and expression must be guarded.

 

The teacher’s professional duty however would be both to encourage contrary arguments among the learners and to insist that the school and society, as represented by its democratically elected law-makers, had a different view of human relationships.

 

The public education system requires to protect the rights of all.  The right to express a religious view must be balanced by the right of gay students or the children of gay parents, to continue their education free from harassment, threats and discrimination.  Current discussions on how schools will teach about marriage, family life and parenthood in the aftermath of proposed legislation are timely and a major updating of the Personal and Social Education curriculum is now essential.

 

There are however more issues in schools than same-sex marriage where one right conflicts with another.

A child’s right to formal education is seen as fundamental.  So is the right to practice one’s own culture.  It is the cultural norm for many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller boys to assume adult roles earlier than normal in Scottish society, to become involved in work or business at age 12 or 13. The right to cultural autonomy conflicts with the right to education.  Should one right trump another?

 

For schools and teachers, in fact, the card they must repeatedly play relates to optimising the learning opportunities of every child.  Taking travelling families to court for the non-attendance of their children won’t change ingrained attitudes but will reinforce them.  Making travelling families welcome in schools, engaging with them and identifying strategies to keep travelling parents on-side and as many youngsters in school for as long as possible isn’t surrendering the young people’s right to education.  Recognising the right of religious fundamentalists to express their views,  does not imply accepting their views, merely that to repress genuinely held (but ill-informed) views only validates them.

Some years ago, when certain religious conservatives were campaigning for ‘intelligent design’ to be part of the science syllabus, I was approached by science teachers insisting they would refuse to teach such materials.  I told them that if any such instruction were given them, I’d be with them refusing to obey orders.  I also suggested however that such a development was entirely unlikely. Those who believe they hold great truths, will however seek to impose their truth on others.

 

André Gide hit the nail on the head. “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”  That’s as good a guide as any to chart a path through the swamp of competing rights.

 

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 25 March 2013

 

 

 

 

 

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