Thursday, February 13, 2014

Open letter to Nigel Farage - Free speech for teachers?

Dear Nigel,

I have been a teacher for 24 years and earlier this month, for the first time ever, someone complained about me. The complaint did not come from a child or parent. It wasnt made by a colleague or a manager. It was made by a local UKIP politician, Councillor Richard Hilton, with whom I had been arguing at a public meeting.

I believe that the complaint, which has since been dismissed, was a cynical attempt to suppress my free speech, using the council complaints process to try to bully me into silence. And like they say, you have to stand up to bullies. So I'm going to tell the story here, in the hope that by exposing Councillor Hilton's nasty behaviour it will make it harder for him to bully others in future.

I did not seek a fight with the UKIP councillor. UKIP decided to hold a local public meeting at the end of my road and put a leaflet through my letterbox inviting me to it. I am not a supporter of UKIP and am deeply worried about some of the arguments I have heard them make against immigrants. I decided therefore it was important to go along and listen to their views for myself. I reasoned that it was likely some of my neighbours would go along and I wanted to be able to put an alternative view if UKIP speakers did attempt to scapegoat immigrant groups. 

When I arrived there was a lone person outside the hall handing out leaflets opposing UKIP views and about 50 people inside.

I took a seat and listened to the speakers. I am an avid user of twitter so decided that I would live tweet the proceedings. (I have collected all my tweets from the meeting and put them here).

The first speaker kicked off with a joke about the lone protestor. He held up the leaflet and asked the audience to note that there was no name or organisation on it. He said this showed that people who attacked UKIP were cowardly and anonymous - scared to speak out under their own name, perhaps because they were extremists or outsiders.

I listened politely to all the speakers whilst tweeting a selection of their comments and my own observations. For example, early on in the meeting one of the UKIP speakers expressed outrage at  the amount of money spent on translation services by Merton council, to approving noises from the audience. I tweeted: "58 white people in a UKIP meeting complaining about costs of translation services to the council.

When the chair asked for questions from the floor I put my hand up to speak. I began by introducing myself by name. Given the speaker's earlier characterisation of UKIP critics I wanted to point out that, far from being an outsider, I was indeed very local having grown up in Mitcham, was married to someone from the area and lived just down the road. My children went to the local state schools and I have taught for the last 24 years in primary schools in the borough. I said very specifically that I wasn't speaking on behalf of anyone else, but was expressing my personal views.

I explained that, like them, I was frustrated by the lack of housing and jobs but, unlike them, I did not believe that blaming the poorest and most vulnerable in our society such as refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants was the answer. I suggested that it would be more effective to campaign to build more social housing and to stop big companies taking advantage of benefit claimants forced to work for nothing. I asked why UKIP wanted the NHS to be privatised when many of us in the room were working to save our local hospital, St Helier. I asked why they were in favour of tax cuts for the richest and why they didn't want to make companies such as Amazon and Starbucks pay their fair share of taxes. I finished by making a plea for a tolerant, multicultural society and said that at school everyone worked together really well.

As you can imagine this was not popular with the panel of UKIP speakers or some sections of the audience and I was shouted at. However this was all quite well mannered and no more lively than an average edition of BBC Question Time.

In response to my support for a harmonious multicultural society, Richard Hilton listed crimes that he saidAsian" men committed such as honour killings and sexual grooming of children. I called out what about Jimmy Saville?to show the lunacy of trying to paint child abuse as the problem of any one racial group.

One of the speakers blamed recent immigration for the pressure on school places and again I pointed out that the council had sold off at least 3 schools in the last 15 years.

A number of people became very agitated about the supposed dangers posed by groups of immigrants and I was horrified to hear UKIP MEP Gerald Batten describe recent Roma and Bulgarian immigrants as "alcoholics, drug addicts, vagrants", to cheers from the audience.

I tweeted "imagine being in a room with 50 UKIP supporters foaming at the mouth about immigration #mylot".

As the meeting progressed Hilton tweeted me directly to ask why I "defended honour killings". I replied that I did not and that I wouldnt even dignify the crime as honourkillings as there was no honour in murder.

At the end of the meeting UKIP Councillor Suzanne Evans summed up. She publicly thanked me by name for coming along as it had allowed them to explain their positions and to show that they were happy to take part in democratic debate (quite ironic as it later turned out).

I didnt rush off at the end of the meeting. I spoke to a couple of UKIP sympathisers who were keen to share their views and again I was thanked for coming along.

Richard Hilton, however, did not take the opportunity to challenge my views face to face. Instead, after the meeting he complained about me to my employer, Merton Council - sending a barrage of emails to senior council executives - and to the local newspaper, the Wimbledon Guardian.

The first line of attack was for Hilton to declare that my tweet:

"58 white people at a UKIP meeting complaining about the cost of translation services"

was offensive because the colour of people in the room was irrelevant. But he didn't leave it there - he said that, because I mentioned skin colour, I must have "the politics of the BNP". An offensive, if ludicrous, claim which he repeated on twitter and to the local press.

More outrageously, Hilton said I was unfit to be a teacher because, he claimed, I could not be trusted to deal with child protection issues. His justification? The fact that I responded to Hilton's attempts to smear Asian men as perpetrators of "honour killings" and child grooming by shouting out "what about Jimmy Saville?". I had tweeted:

"Rather proud of my "Jimmy Saville" heckle as councillor is moaning about honour killings".

It is outrageous that Hilton used my comments out of context to make serious allegations about my fitness to be a teacher. Child protection really is a serious matter, and complaints on this subject should certainly not be raised spuriously, as ammunition to hit out at someone you disagree with.

It was irritating the next day to be taken away from my lesson preparation to discuss this with my headteacher, but it was no big deal. The complaints were clearly ludicrous and, after an investigation, it was clear that nothing I had done was contentious. But of course the school had to follow the correct complaints procedure so it did take up quite a bit of time.

It was slightly alarming to be featured in the local paper under the headline "Primary teacher accused of sending offensive tweets" (not least because of the truly scary picture the paper found of me to use!) However any fears I had that people might believe Hilton's wild accusations were soon allayed by the many, many messages of support I received.

So why am I bothering to write about the whole affair it in such great detail? Because I believe that Councillor Hilton's bullying behaviour threatens free speech and could put off teachers and other council employees from getting involved in local politics.

Very few people take an an active part in local democracy apart from professional politicians. I have spent lots of time persuading colleagues and neighbours to get involved in local issues. We built a brilliant parent network that helped transform school meals in the borough. And neighbours came together to defend a playing field which we stopped the council from selling off. In both cases the campaigns were initially vigorously opposed by groups of Councillors.

I can just imagine the impact on these grass roots, community activities if those involved feared that expressing their views and standing up to Councillors could lead to them being attacked personally, at work and in the press.

I dont know if this is official UKIP policy but it is incredibly worrying if political parties want to shut down discussion in this way.

I love being a teacher and I understand that this brings certain responsibilities. But that doesnt mean I can't express my views publicly on matters that I care about, as long as they are not offensive or illegal or breach a confidentiality. I know that lots of teachers agonise about using social media and some choose to be anonymous. I don't choose to be anonymous. 

I dont agree with Councillor Hiltons politics and I abhor some of the things he has said about immigrants. But I have not run to his bosses or shareholders at British Telecom to complain about him.

However I do think his bullying attacks on me fall short of the behaviour I expect from a councillor. And it seems he has a track record here: several other Merton Councillors, from more than one political party, have privately told me that they too have been on the receiving end of his bullying.

This is not a complaint about UKIP. I completely support their right to hold public meetings as long as they remain within the law. You have every right to challenge my views both in person and on Twitter. 

However, I believe that the complaints Councillor Hilton made against me were malicious and deliberately intended to shut me up. Worse still, they could also put off others from speaking out. That is why I am speaking out - free speech is precious and we should guard it well.

 I have thought long and hard about posting this. It would be easier to simply bury my head and hope that Councillor Hilton leaves me alone in the future. I can't do that though. I think it is important to speak out. It is entirely up to you Nigel how you deal with Councillor Hilton but I know democracy will never flourish when people like me who speak "inconvenient truths" are bullied.


Jackie Schneider


  1. Jackie,

    You see, that's what happens when people are excluded.

    If the BNP were invited, we would have associated honour killings with muslims.

    We would have told you that we don't blame immigrants coming here for a better life and that we don't blame immigrants for mass immigration.

    In the BNP we are absolutely sick to the back teeth off middle class whites, excluding working class whites from the democratic process.

    This this is what it has come down to. Racist middle class whites presenting a racist opposition to mass immigration?

    Anyway, as you were, middle class whites, walking away from hustings with the BNP being lied about yet again, unable to defend ourselves, even though in the last Wythenshawe election the BNP got more votes.

    1. The fuck? Are you trying to show there are people more fucked up than UKIP or something? UKIP are just the BNP with more airtime.

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  2. Well done, Jackie, for standing up and standing your ground! I don't think your Councillor Hilton is alone in acting in this sort of way - I don't think it's confined to one party, either. It's a disgrace that translation services are cut in the way they are, and that EFL teachers are being dismissed because those who run Academies don't understand what they do. This scapegoating of immigrants and anyone "not like us" needs to be opposed. More power to your elbow!

  3. Of course it doesn't matter what occupation you have. This kind of personal attack using your employ could happen to a lot of people in our society. It is truly disgusting tactics from a morally corrupt individual. Thanks for sharing your experience to warn others.

  4. Hilton is a common example a typical UKIP activist or cllr. They resent any questioning of their politics and will seek to shut down any dissent.

  5. In theory UKIP are supposed to be a liberatrian party but just like in Merton, we have an example in Crawley where free speech is hated by UKIP.

  6. Seems to me that you went to that meeting with the sole purpose of causing a disruption and considering the fact that you deem it acceptable behaviour to take your children on demonstrations and openly brag about this on twitter, I personally would not let you near any of my children. I can only presume that your manner was such at that meeting that the Councillor came to the same conclusion as me and reported you to the authorities more so out of concern for the children you teach than anything else.
    I have witnessed your attitude first hand when I tried to speak with you sensibly about this matter on Twitter and by the end of it I had decided that it is hardly surprising kids today lack good manners when their teachers don't have any either.

    1. This is what Marty Caine had to say about Lee Rigby's parents:

      What a disgusting person he must be.

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  7. Hi Marty,
    Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I would just like to reply to 3 of your points

    1. My attendance at a UKIP public meeting. Since there is such a barrage of "looney" UKIP stories in the press I thought it was important to go along and allow the UKIP speakers the opportunity to put their views across. I had no intention of disrupting the meeting - heck I even helped put my chair away! If I had caused a "disruption" why did Councillor Evans actually publicly thank me by name for coming along? Several of your supporters chose to chat me as we walked out.

    2. I am so proud of the wonderful democratic traditions and freedoms we have in this country. I don't really trust the professional politicians when it comes to the big questions such as waging war or standing up for the poorest. That is why I go along to peaceful protests. Far from "bragging" about taking my children I commented that I would not feel comfortable taking my children along if there was a likelihood a water cannon could be turned on us. The tweets are a matter of public record if you would like to have a look back

    3. I would never claim to be a representative of all teachers so any real or imagined rudeness you feel I have expressed to you should not be laid at the door of my colleagues. I try to be a kind and open minded person so I am sorry if I have offended you. I have struggled to find an example of me being anything less than respectful. Perhaps you would be so kind as to show me an example?

    It is a terrible state of affairs that so few people are actively involved in local politics. I think part of the reason they get put off is the fear they will be shouted at and abused if they put their head above the parapet and disagree with the consensus view. I know I was nervous about disagreeing at the UKIP meeting but I am glad I did.

    Finally, I respect your right to disagree with me but NOONE should have to be in fear for their job for expressing legal reasonable opinions even if they are at odds with UKIP policy.

    Best wishes,
    Jackie Schneider

  8. "Finally, I respect your right to disagree with me but NOONE should have to be in fear for their job for expressing legal reasonable opinions even if they are at odds with UKIP policy."

    1) it is NO ONE not Noone
    2) From your own admission in this blog it was you who was actually shouting and trying your hardest to abuse those who were speaking. Hopefully that has not been deemed as acceptable behaviour in this country yet.
    3) I am sure the complaint against you was made because you should not be let near any children with the attitude you have.
    4) Stop trying to play the victim card, you knew exactly what you was doing at that time and you are now trying to twist it to make it look far worse than it was. There was a very good reason why the audience at that meeting was shouting you down.What lesson is that teaching us exactly.
    5) You were never nervous for one moment, you went there for the sole purpose of creating this situation. Nothing more, nothing less and because of that mentality I would not let you near any child.

    Now I am sure you will try to say that I am bullying you by making these observations but it will never alter the simple fact that you are against policies that you have never taken the time to read and have now become obsessed with the false idea of your own self importance. I believe you are a music teacher and I do think that you should stick to teaching music, I am sure you will find the results of that far more rewarding than you will by going into political combat with others, something that you do seem so obsessed with doing, as is obvious by your twitter feed.

    I actually take a lot of flack for stating my own belief that teachers should be apolitical, thank you for proving that my reasoning for thinking that is sound.

    1. Marty Caine
      You write as if you yourself were present at the meeting. 'You were never nervous for one moment'
      - Were you present? If not, then your comments are pure speculation. In fact, your piece reads as complete fabrication. 'You knew exactly what you were doing...etc' How do you know? What evidence is there?

      Know what do we know? The complaint against Jackie was rejected. And that other members/officers in the council have privately told Jackie that they too have been on the end of bullying behaviour by Cllor Hilton. We also know that Jackie has done good work locally in building a parents network to improve school meals; and fought to preserve school playing fields. Hardly the work of some crazed subversive. And Jackie is also an Archers' fan- how safe can you get?
      I personally would be delighted to have Jackie as a teacher for all the kids I know. Merton is damn lucky to have her.

      Nicholas Crosby.

    2. Judging by your comments about Lee Rigby's family, your reasoning is very far from being sound.

    3. 'I actually take a lot of flack for stating my own belief that teachers should be apolitical'. I should bloody well think so. You certainly deserve to.

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  9. If you can't take hecklers at a political meeting or people opposing you on Twitter, maybe you should bow out of politics.
    In fact, this isn't the only reason you should bow out. You want a society where people fear and hate each other. You want a society where everyone looks, thinks and acts the same. You can dress is up however you wish but your party is a racist party.
    Well done to Jackie for standing up against you. We need more people like her.

  10. Well done Jackie for standing up to UKIP bullies. Marty Caine above shows exactly the kind of behaviour that UKIP bring to political debate and why they are such a dangerous group of people.

  11. Regarding the ukip chap's response during the meeting, it witnesses to a wider general problem (and I witnessed this at a year's worth of Borough Council meetings which I attended as Mayor's Chaplain) is local politicians trying to ape the behaviour they see in the House of Commons and Question Time, but not having the brain or wit.

    Rudeness, twisting words, and attempted bullying is to be found throughout dullard, polarising, chip on shoulder politics, whilst attempting petty point scoring on unsupported claims. The worse thing is that genuinely believe the often ludicrous points they seek to make.

    I commend the o.p. for standing up to it.

  12. Sounds like the UKIP is the UK equivalent of our Tea Party and is made up of similarly ill-informed, aggressive and bullying individuals who live in a fantasy world of perpetual victimhood. Never heard a bigger bunch of whingers than Tea Partier's, completely consumed by imaginary violations of their 'rights' without being in the least concerned about their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy to protect the precious values (free speech, anyone?) those rights ensure. Mean-spiritedness, thankfully, doesn't play well for long. The best way to drain support from these types of candidates is to allow them to expound on their deep thoughts in very public venues. When petty anger at 'the others' is your only platform, the lack of any real substance becomes obvious very quickly. The Tea Party here still has enough clout to mess with primary elections and they hold local power in areas of the country where most reasonable people would not wish to live anyway, but the vast majority of the country rejects them in national elections. Dumb and mean just aren't appealing qualities for elected officials.

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  14. Well done for standing up to a bully.