Natfhe's belief that academics should not have to teach BNP members raises the question of whether political correctness is curtailing freedom of speech. Matthew Baker reports
In a Salford University lecture theatre, a class of first-year politics undergraduates is being taught about the legacy of fascism and Nazi tyranny. The air is thick with tension as many of the students nervously fiddle with pens and shift uncomfortably in their seats.
Most will have been asked to boycott the lecture by protesters outside, and from the scattering of empty seats, it seems that some students have complied with the request. But despite the uneasy atmosphere, one young man stares impassively ahead, defiant and unmoved.
The presence on campus of Tony Wentworth, leader of the Young British National Party, has enraged many of his fellow students and provoked regular demonstrations by the Anti Nazi League outside his lectures and seminars. Earlier this year, a 600-name petition calling for his expulsion was presented to the university's vice-chancellor.
Wentworth is by no means a unique case. The BNP's attempts in recent years to reposition itself as a mainstream political party are reflected not only in the 11 seats the party gained at this year's local elections but also in the changing face of some of its new recruits.
"The BNP is no longer a 'bully-boys in jackboots' party," Wentworth claims.
He talks of a growth of student members studying at York, Essex, Oxford, Liverpool, Leeds and Nottingham universities. "Three of these, including myself, were candidates at this year's local elections," he explains.
The suggestion that the BNP is now attracting members with letters after their name rather than criminal convictions will surprise many. But among the teaching unions, there are real concerns about the worrying prospect of campuses becoming recruitment grounds for the far right.
The decision by lecturers' union Natfhe to encourage its members to assert "their moral right not to be required to teach such students" has been described as "excessive" by some. Not least by the BNP's spokesperson, former university lecturer Phil Edwards, who called the decision "unlawful and absurd".
But despite the threat of legal action by the BNP should any of its members be prevented from attending lectures, Natfhe is pressing ahead with its campaign, arguing that "it's time to take tough action".
At its annual conference last week, the union passed a motion that is bound to be frowned upon by human rights groups, arguing that its members should not be required to teach such students if they find it ethically difficult to do so. Natfhe is also trying to gather more support to counter what it claims is a culture of fear and intimidation on campuses by calling for other unions to support its anti-racist stance.
"We believe the aim of education is the promotion of life chances on as equitable a basis as possible," explains Colin Gledhill, Natfhe regional official for the Northwest.
"But quite simply, the BNP is opposed to social cohesion, and its very presence on campuses is extremely threatening and intimidating. It is forcing an agenda of hatred on people, and as community stakeholders we have to take an anti-racist stance and protect our members."
Gledhill says he is confident of the full support of members and is hopeful that other large unions will back the motion.
A spokesperson for the Association of University Teachers says the AUT is aware of Natfhe's resolution and that it will make an announcement on this issue later in the month.
"Some staff may feel uncomfortable at being asked to teach students who are openly active supporters of extreme rightwing organisations," he admits.
"Those who feel unable to teach such students should contact the AUT for support."
So far, there have been no cases of anyone refusing to teach BNP members.
But tensions have flared on a number of campuses, with some teachers saying they have been intimidated by racist tirades from BNP activists.
One teacher, who did not wish to be named, was confronted earlier this year by a senior BNP member at Greenwich University who allegedly stormed into her office and declared his party membership before racially abusing her.
Recently, police were called to the university after another lecturer discovered that her details had been posted on an extreme-right website, Redwatch, which promises to make "traitors pay for their crimes".
The regular inclusion of lecturers' photos and details such as telephone numbers and addresses on the website, which asks viewers to monitor lecturers' behaviour and pass on information about their activities, is undoubtedly an intimidating factor for lecturers who face racist abuse on campus.
Many feel too threatened to speak out about their experience of abuse by students who are BNP members for fear that they will be targeted through the Redwatch site, which has links to Combat 18 and a variety of openly fascist organisations.
"Of course it's worrying when you see yourself described as a traitor on Redwatch with your personal details disclosed," admits Peter Jones, a lecturer at Burnley College. "I also get a lot of BNP material put into my pigeonhole, and as an Asian teacher it's very intimidating.
"We've had Carol Hughes, a BNP councillor, as a student here, and I'd say there's now a clear and present danger on campuses regarding the BNP's activities and its wish to legitimise its racist views in places of higher education. But campuses shouldn't be political battlefields, they should be for those who have a thirst for learning."
Wentworth is adamant that he does not represent the BNP when he is on campus, but he admits that he airs his political views from time to time in seminars and has recruited two student members in his first term at the university.
However, he says the BNP is preparing to take legal action in response to a union-led decision that "is becoming inevitable".
"If any of our members are denied an education because of political correctness, then they will feel the full force of the BNP's legal team," Wentworth says. "The unions will be made to look foolish over this."
Human rights organisations tend to agree. "This is a very dangerous thing for the unions to be doing," warns Mark Littlewood, campaigns director for Liberty. "They should be very careful of making a judgement on whether people are worthy of an education.
"If people are being disruptive or openly racist, then they have a case.
But I'm afraid it's not sufficient to prevent someone from getting an education simply because they're a member of a rightwing political party.
It's worth remembering that in the 1960s and 1970s, people were blacklisted because they were members of a union."
Although Wentworth denies allegations of racist behaviour by students who are BNP members, he has been accused of abusing members of Salford University's Afro Caribbean Society and of taking photos for Redwatch earlier this year.
Wentworth is alleged to have been filmed by Yorkshire Television taking pictures of anti-Nazi protesters at a by-election in Halifax on January 23.
According to a spokesperson for the Anti Nazi League, the pictures he took that night appeared on Redwatch, which is run in conjunction with Combat 18.
In a month in which the suspended Labour MP George Galloway has been accused of "crossing the boundaries of free speech" by his Labour colleague Tessa Jowell, Natfhe's decision to put the spotlight on the BNP raises the question of whether freedom of speech is being replaced by political correctness.
"Freedom brings responsibilities," Gledhill says. "We're not free to shout fire in a crowded cinema, and the streets of Blackburn and Burnley are very much like that cinema at the moment. No one is at liberty to promulgate views that are designed to be inflammatory and hateful."
The BNP is certainly no stranger to inflammatory views. Wentworth has recently been reported as saying that "genocide is being committed against the white Aryan race in Britain because of intermarriage and immigration".
Furthermore, his predecessor, Mark Collett, was sacked as leader of the Young BNP after a Channel 4 documentary revealed him to be an outright Nazi sympathiser.
But surely there's an irony in the fact that while many attribute the growth of the BNP to a lack of education among their supporters, Natfhe is set on denying an education to those who possibly need it the most.
"We're very aware of this dilemma," Gledhill admits. "How can we expect enlightenment unless we're prepared to tackle this issue? In an ideal world, we should deal with it like that. But unfortunately in this situation, we're not dealing with people who are just speaking their mind, we're dealing with people who are forcing their agenda on the rest of the country in an extremely organised and hateful manner."