Race case sparks freedom debate

February 21, 1997

THE CASE of a university professor from Madrid accused of racism is fuelling debate in Spain over the limits of academic freedom.

Guillermo Quintana, professor of educational psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid, emerged from obscurity last month when he recommended his book, The Psychology of the Personality and its Disturbances, as a course text for his third-year education students. He provided no alternative bibliography for the course unit and encouraged students to buy his book by offering special discounts if orders were placed through him.

The students discovered passages in which Professor Quintana spelled out his theories on psychology and race. Whites were described as "of superior intelligence", while blacks are classified as having a "primitive mentality and customs", and of showing "childish hyper-emotionalism, unbalance, fear, cowardice", and "the yellow race" is said to be "slow, clumsy, lacking in imagination and inventiveness".

"I just couldn't believe what I was reading," said Raquel Jimeno, one of Professor Quintana's students. "Apart from the fact that the book has nothing to do with the course content, what is it trying to tell me, that I should make the classes easier if the child is black?" After protests by students, involving letters sent to foreign embassies, and high-profile articles in the Spanish press, the Complutense University has taken action. Professor Quintana has been forced into asking his publisher to withdraw the book and he has since gone on sick leave.

Rector Rafael Puyol has publicly condemned "certain opinions expressed by Professor Quintana in his book". The university is considering whether disciplinary action is appropriate, and his classes have been taken over by another lecturer.

The affair has prompted awkward questions about what constitutes free speech in Spanish universities. The issue has featured in debates in the national press and on the radio.

Education minister Esperanza Aguirre has announced her intention to look into the way universities go about selecting their teaching staff.

Freedom of expression for academics is specifically guaranteed by Article 20 of the Spanish constitution of 1978. However, as Rafael Navarro, secretary general of the Complutense University, points out, this is not an absolute right. Academics also have a duty to avoid distorting the truth and to give an accurate view of the world as well as ensuring their teaching contributes to the overall development of their students.

Manuel Gerpe, dean of law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says the final arbiter of what a lecturer may or may not teach has got to be whether the material will stand up to scientific scrutiny. "Freedom of academic expression cannot be used to shelter theories with no scientific basis," he says. Professor Gerpe sees the fact that the Complutense students have been so quick to stand up for their right to a plural education as one of the more positive aspects of the Quintana case. He also believes universities can learn from the episode.

"It underlines the need for institutions to strengthen the scientific rigour of their teaching," he says. "It acts as a warning that we must supervise this better and that can only be a good thing."

Many people agree that the episode has caused such feelings of surprise and discomfort within the Spanish university system precisely because it is so unusual. Trying to prevent such a thing happening again by tighter controls on staff would be counter-productive and could pose a threat to academic freedom.

It is felt that it is up to universities to use their autonomy to regulate themselves, and in a case such as that of Professor Quintana, it is better to react swiftly once the problem arises rather than trying to pre-empt the problem at risk of limiting academics' rights to freedom of expression.

Academics are also unanimous that for universities to try to vote which books their lecturers use in class is neither practical nor desirable. Professor Navarro points out that in a university as large as the Complutense, with 7,000 lecturers and 130,000 students, this is just not possible. Furthermore, such scrutiny would be a highly controversial move in a country with as young a democracy as Spain.

"For people of my generation, the word censorship immediately conjures up dictatorship," says Juan Antonio Carrillo, professor of international law at the University of Seville.

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