Happy New Year from the FSU’s staff!
We have two full time case officers on staff, as well as two full time lawyers, and nearly all their time is taken up with case work. In a busy week, we get 50 requests for help and at any one time we’ll have around 75 cases on the go. These are cases where people have been punished, sacked, bullied, harassed, investigated, or disciplined for speaking their mind – or because a colleague prowled through their personal social media profiles in an effort to find something ‘offensive’ to complain about. In a typical week the case team will be kept busy drafting letters to employers to shut down sham investigations, advising members about the rules and procedures governing internal investigations, and counselling people through what are always extremely stressful situations. Members seeking our assistance in 2022 included teachers, civil servants, manual workers, academics and celebrities.
We only publicise a fraction of our cases. That’s either because the other side has insisted on confidentiality as a condition of agreeing a generous settlement, or because we’ve helped our members resolve their disputes with their employers and they don’t want to antagonise them by going to the press, or because they don’t want the allegation to pop up if someone Googles their name in case it jeopardises future employment.
But we have been able to talk about some of our successes.
For instance, FSU member Simon Isherwood won his Employment Tribunal case against West Midlands Trains (WMT), with the judgement handed down in August. The rail conductor was dismissed for gross misconduct after asking his wife whether indigenous populations in African countries enjoy ‘black privilege’ following a training session on ‘white privilege’ with around 80 other staff members via Teams. He thought he’d disconnected but he hadn’t and one of his colleagues complained. Instead of laughing off the complaint, WMT suspended him, subjected him to a lengthy investigation and then dismissed him for ‘gross misconduct’.
Simon’s Employment Tribunal hearing took place in May before Judge Stephen Wyeth. In addition to paying Simon’s legal fees, the FSU drafted in leading civil rights barrister Paul Diamond to represent him. In a landmark victory, Judge Wyeth decided that Mr Isherwood had been unfairly dismissed. The judgement reasserted the fact that “freedom of expression, including a qualified right to offend when expressing views and beliefs (in this case on social issues), is a fundamental right in a democratic society”. Particularly important in terms of workers’ speech rights was the clear distinction the judgement drew between the public and private sphere, noting that in Simon’s case, “the expression of his private view of the course to his wife in the confines of his own home was not blameworthy or culpable conduct”.
We also won an important victory over Essex University. Three years ago, Professor Jo Phoenix and Professor Rosa Freedman, both gender critical feminists, were disinvited from two separate events at the University following protests from LGBTQ+ activists who claimed that allowing them to speak would be a breach of various University policies, including one entitled ‘Harassment and Bullying: Our Zero Tolerance Approach’. Among other things, these policies set out the University’s legal duty to protect minority students from being harassed or discriminated against under the Equality Act 2010. The protestors claimed that merely allowing these two gender critical feminists on campus, even if they spoke about something entirely unrelated to trans rights, would be against the law.
This double no-platforming provoked widespread condemnation and the University commissioned the equalities barrister Akua Reindorf to review its policies. She concluded that the University was in breach of its statutory duty to ensure freedom of speech for visiting speakers, as well as its regulatory obligations, duties under charity law and – in all probability – its legal duties as set out in the Equality Act 2010. Reindorf said that the University’s policies that had been invoked to no-platform Professors Phoenix and Freedman interpreted the law “as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is”. It goes without saying that Essex is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme.
The report made 28 recommendations, some of them concerning Essex’s policies. The University duly apologised to Professors Phoenix and Freedman and agreed to implement Reindorf’s recommendations in full – but when the LGBTQ+ activists complained that the apology made them feel ‘unsafe’, the University then issued a second apology apologising for the first, which didn’t bode well. Sure enough, it then dragged its feet over making the changes it had promised to make.
We wrote to Essex last November threatening it with a Judicial Review if it didn’t amend its policies to ensure they accurately stated the law and weren’t in breach of the University’s free speech duties. Essex wrote back, agreeing to do some of the things we’d asked, although it claimed it was intending to do them anyway, but disputing that it was legally required to comply with all our demands. We then wrote again, extracting a few more concessions… and on and on it went until, eventually, the University agreed to do more or less everything we’d asked. As a coda to this victory, the Office for Students issued some free speech guidance last month which stressed that the Equality Act shouldn’t be interpreted in the way it had been by Essex.
- We helped our member Hatun Tash, an evangelical street preacher, secure £10,000 in damages from the Metropolitan Police, as well as an apology, after she was wrongly arrested at Speakers’ Corner in June.
- We forced the Home Office to back down in April after one of its senior managers insisted that all employees had to include their preferred gender pronouns in their email signatures.
- In June, we helped secure an apology from Worcester College to Christian Concern, whom it had falsely accused of harassing LGBTQ+ students when it hosted a summer school at the College in 2021.
- We helped raise £20,000 to fund an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Joseph Kelly, a Scotsman convicted of being ‘grossly offensive’ for a tasteless tweet he posted about Captain Tom.
- We launched a petition in November urging Elon Musk to restore the Twitter accounts of several of our members – and most of them have now been restored.
Perhaps our biggest victory of the year was over PayPal, the multi-billion dollar payment processor.
On 15th September, PayPal notified me that it was permanently closing my personal account, as well as the accounts of the Daily Sceptic – a news publishing site I own – and the FSU. The reason cited in all three cases was that the accounts had violated PayPal’s ‘Acceptable Use Policy’.
When pressed for specifics, PayPal couldn’t decide why it had closed the accounts – it alternated between telling me I’d breached its policy about not promoting “hate, violence or racial intolerance” and telling newspapers my accounts had been closed because I was spreading “Covid-19 misinformation”.
My suspicion is that someone at PayPal simply doesn’t like my politics and had my accounts closed for that reason, without bothering to create a proper alibi. In other words, this was a prime example of someone being punished by a financial services company for expressing non-conformist views and, in the case of the FSU, defending people for expressing such views.
And I’m not the only one. PayPal has closed numerous accounts because it dislikes the politics of the individuals or organisations linked to them, from Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist who challenges trans rights dogma, to UsForThem, a group of mums that campaigned against school closures during the lockdowns. So I went to war with PayPal, appearing on GB News virtually every day to tell its viewers what had happened, writing about it in the Spectator, the Telegraph and Spiked, and, along with UsForThem, persuading 42 peers and MPs to write to Jacob Rees-Mogg, then the Business Secretary, and Mel Stride, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, urging them to hold PayPal to account. After he received the letter, Rees-Mogg described PayPal’s actions as a sinister new form of cancel culture.
All this pressure became too much for the California-based company. On 27th September, PayPal apologised to me and restored all the accounts. It explained that it had changed its mind after ‘input’ from its ‘customers and stakeholders’– by which it probably meant all the people that had cancelled their PayPal accounts in solidarity with the FSU.
It goes without saying that we’ll now try to completely disentangle our finances from PayPal. The US company’s behaviour wasn’t some brief moment of madness – an inexplicable yet temporary deviation from standard financial practice. As we hurtle towards a cashless economy, it’s part of a global trend towards weaponising Big Tech and financial services to suppress dissent of every kind. We saw it most obviously in the case of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shutting down the Freedom Convoy last year. But there are numerous examples of organisations with dissenting views being deplatformed by financial services companies, such as the U.K. Medical Freedom Alliance, an organisation that campaigned against vaccine mandates.
That’s why the FSU – with the help of its members and supporters – has been lobbying the Government to develop a legislative mechanism capable of preventing companies like PayPal from censoring people or campaign groups expressing legal but dissenting views (or, as in the case of the FSU, simply defending those who express legal but dissenting views). This is an ongoing campaign and we’ll be asking for your help again this year.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering what payment processors are least likely to cancel you for expressing non-conformist views, we produced a briefing on how free speech friendly the major payment processors and crowdfunding platforms are. It makes for pretty grim reading I’m afraid.
Online Safety Bill
Another significant victory was that when the Online Safety Bill returned to the House of Commons in December, having been placed on hold after Boris’s resignation in July, the ‘legal but harmful’ clause, which we’d been campaigning against for over a year, had been scrapped. In the previous version, the big social media companies were required to say in their terms of service how they intended to ‘address’ content that’s legal but harmful to adults – and the Government was planning to come up with a list of this ‘lawful but awful’ content in supplementary legislation. We were concerned that this would ‘nudge’ companies like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to remove content that the Government disapproved of, such as criticism of the mRNA vaccines or the Net Zero policy. That clause has now gone and in the latest version of the Bill the big providers are only required to say what tools they’ll provide their users with so they can block ‘legal but harmful’ content if they don’t want to see it.
Another improvement is that plans to introduce a new harmful communications offence in England and Wales, making it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to post a message online (or send one in the post) with the intention of causing “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress”, have also been scrapped. That was something we’d been campaigning against as well.
Those are both positive changes, but there’s still a great deal in the Bill that causes us concern and we’ll be putting forward some amendments – and urging our members and supporters to write to their MPs asking them to support them – in 2023.
Non-Crime Hate Incidents
With our help, ex-copper Harry Miller won a landmark victory in the Court of Appeal in December 2021. It ruled that the College of Policing’s guidance requiring the police in England and Wales to investigate reports of ‘hate incidents’ and make a record of the fact that the person-in-question had been investigated in a police database was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
We thought this would mark the beginning of the end of this Orwellian practice – ‘non crimes’ being recorded against people’s names – but many police forces just carried on as if nothing had changed. Consequently, we helped secure an amendment to the the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act which gives the Home Secretary the option of bringing forward a statutory instrument that will introduce a Code of Practice with respect to the recording and retention of Non-Crime Hate Incidents (NCHIs), bringing the number down from hundreds of thousands to, we hope, a few hundred. We also encouraged any of our members who think an NCHI has been recorded against their name to contact us so we can help get it removed (and have had some success).
We’re hopeful that Suella Braverman will avail herself of that option in 2023, not least because Chris Philp, the Policing Minister, told a meeting of the Oxford University Conservative Association in December that he was planning to tell all Chief Constables to stop recording NCHIs.
FAQs and Briefings
If you suspect you have an NCHI recorded against your name and want to get it removed, check out our FAQs on the subject, one of several FAQs we produced in 2022.
In addition, we produced FAQs on:
- Social Media and the Workplace
- The Government’s proposed reforms to the Human Rights Act
- What to do if you’re asked to declare your preferred gender pronouns in the workplace
- How to make a Freedom of Information Request
- Proposed Hate Crime Legislation in Northern Ireland
Our research team also produced a number of briefing documents on important areas of legislation:
Speakeasies and Events
We organised a plethora of speakeasies and events in 2022, both in person and online, including two comedy nights, over half-a-dozen online speakeasies, two book launches and several in-person regional speakeasies up and down the country.
Highlights of our members-only speakeasies include conversations with:
If you’d like to attend any of the regional speakeasies we’ve organised in 2023 in Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham or Brighton, check out our Events page.
Launch of FSU Scotland, the South African FSU and the Writers’ Advisory Council
Finally, we expanded our operations in a number of key areas.
In response to demand from our Scottish members, we opened an office in Scotland which we unveiled at an event in April with Jacob Mchangama, the internationally renowned free speech advocate and author of the highly acclaimed book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. You can watch highlights from that event on our FSU Scotland page.
In July, we welcomed a new addition to the growing family of overseas sister organisations in the form of the South African FSU. Check out its website for more details.
And last month we launched our Writers’ Advisory Council and crafted a special offer to authors who are worried that their right to freedom of expression is under threat. You can watch a testimonial from Holly Lawford-Smith, a writer whom we helped recently, by visiting our dedicated Writers’ Advisory Council page here.
Please join or donate (or both)
I hope you’ll agree this is an impressive list of achievements. If you’re not yet a member, please join – membership fees start at £2.49 a month – and if you’re already a member please consider making a donation, either to the FSU in general or to our legal fund. We can only afford to keep membership fees so low thanks to the generous donations of our members and supporters – every little helps.
I’m going to take the next few days off, but I’ll be back at the coal face, along with the FSU’s team of dedicated free speech warriors, on 2nd January. Here’s hoping that 2023 is an even more successful year for us than 2022 – which, with your help, it will be.
Happy New Year.
- Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF)
- Article 19
- The Campaign for Free Speech
- Fair Cop
- The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)
- Free Speech Champions
- The Free Speech Club
- Heterodox Academy
- The Institute of Public Affairs
- The National Association of Scholars
- Scholars at Risk Network
- Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (Canada)
Contact the FSU
Before getting in touch please look at our Frequently Asked Questions, as that may answer the question you have. If you still want to get in touch, please use one of the email addresses below:
Help: If your right to free speech is being infringed or you are being penalised in some way for exercising your lawful right to free speech please email [email protected].
Technical support: [email protected]
Anything else: [email protected]
The Free Speech Union
85 Great Portland Street
London W1W 7LT
+44 (0)20 3920 7865