Another Triumph for the Free Speech Union

Professor Dorian Abbot

The Free Speech Union can chalk up another victory.

Last week, we launched a petition in defence of Professor Dorian Abbot, a tenured faculty member in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, who had come under attack from students and postdocs in his department for a series of videos he posted to YouTube expressing his reservations about the way Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have been discussed and implemented on campus.

In these videos – since taken down – Prof Abbot raised several misgivings about DEI efforts and expressed concern that a climate of fear is “making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions”. The slides for each of Prof Abbot’s videos can be found here, and his own account of events and his opinions can be found here. Nowhere in these materials does Prof Abbot offer any opinion that a reasonable person would consider to be hateful or otherwise offensive.

Shortly after uploading the videos, Abbot’s concerns were confirmed when 58 students and postdocs of the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and 71 other graduate students and postdocs from other University of Chicago departments, posted a letter saying that Prof Abbot’s opinions “threaten the safety and belonging of all underrepresented groups within the [Geophysical Sciences] department” and “represent an aggressive act” towards research and teaching communities. The letter also made 11 demands, many of which would serve to ostracise and shame Prof Abbot, while stripping him of departmental titles, courses, and privileges.

Putting aside the evident bad faith of Prof Abbot’s would-be censors, these demands run counter to the University of Chicago’s widely touted “Chicago Principles”, which outline the “University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas” that “guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn”. These principles are widely considered the academic gold standard for their commitment to free and open inquiry.

The petition, which quickly gathered steam, asked Chicago University President Robert J Zimmer to issue a statement saying he had no intention of watering down the Chicago Principles and affirming the right of Chicago’s academic staff to express their views on controversial topics, however unorthodox, without fear of being penalised by their employer in any way. By Sunday, it had attracted over 6,000 signatures, many of them from distinguished academics, such as Harvard psychology professor and free speech champion Steven Pinker.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, President Zimmer did exactly what the petition asked for and issued a statement declaring his unequivocal support for the Chicago Principles and making it clear that he didn’t expect any harm to come to Prof Abbot on account of his dissenting views on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion:

From time to time, faculty members at the University share opinions and scholarship that provoke spirited debate and disagreement, and in some cases offend members of the University community.

As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and these values have been consistent throughout our history. We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law. Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.

This is a fantastic result. I’m absolutely delighted that President Zimmer has responded so speedily and so robustly. I’m confident that Prof Abbot is no longer in any danger from this outrage mob. Most importantly, thanks to the actions of its President, the University of Chicago has confirmed its status as a beacon of academic free speech that universities around the world can look to for inspiration.

Landmark Free Speech Case at Eton

Will Knowland with his wife Rachel and their five children

A teacher at Eton has been sacked because he encouraged his students to question the newly-entrenched woke orthodoxy at the school. According to the Telegraph, Will Knowland was dismissed for gross misconduct after he refused to take down a video from his personal YouTube channel that challenged the idea that all psychological differences between men and women are socially constructed. Originally created as part of a critical thinking course for older boys at Eton, the video referenced over 40 academic books and papers in support of the idea that traditional gender roles are partly due to biological differences between men and women. The Head Master, Simon Henderson, asked the heretical teacher not to give the lecture, which he agreed to, and then asked him to remove it from his YouTube channel. Mr Knowland didn’t point blank refuse, but asked the Head Master to give him a good reason. Why was Eton parroting the feminist shibboleth that gender is a social construct and why didn’t the Head Master want the boys to challenge that idea? When no satisfactory answer was forthcoming, Mr Knowland decided to stand his ground and was duly fired by the Head Master.

Mr Knowland, who is a passionate believer in free speech, is a member of the Free Speech Union and has our full support. I gave a quote to the Mail on Sunday, which ran a sympathetic piece yesterday, and we have been steering people towards his crowdfunder on our social media channels. He is appealing his dismissal and the chairman of the appeals panel is William Waldegrave, the Provost of the school. If any members of the FSU are themselves Old Etonians, or parents of children currently at Eton, or governors of the school, please email Lord Waldegrave here, urging him to reinstate. If Mr Knowland’s appeal is unsuccessful, he is planning to take Eton to the Employment Tribunal.

This case is about more than just one school. As parents reading this will know, anyone who dissents from the prevailing orthodoxy in schools when it comes to controversial topics like sex and gender, climate change, Covid-19, racial inequality and Britain’s colonial past – whether a teacher or a pupil – is likely to find themselves socially ostracised or worse. Will Knowland may not get his job back, and he may not win his case in the Employment Tribunal, but it is important to do what we can to defend people who are punished for questioning fashionable opinion.

Incidentally, if you want to see a good advertisement for a truly liberal education, read this open letter written by some of Mr Knowland’s pupils asking the Provost to uphold his appeal. From the looks of it, it has been signed by a majority of the boys at the school.

Coming Soon: Social Media FAQs

Will Knowland isn’t the first member of the FSU to lose his job as a result of something he or she posted on social media. It is now common for employers to ask employees to sign up to far-reaching social media policies when they start work, agreeing not to post anything – even in a purely personal capacity – likely to bring their company or institution into disrepute. And “social media” is usually undefined in these policies, which means employers can come after people if they say something “inappropriate” in a WhatsApp group, not just on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. We have one member we’re currently looking after who is being put through a disciplinary process because of something he said on WhatsApp to his now ex-partner.

We think it’s wrong that employers should be able to restrict what people say outside of work under the pretext of protecting their reputations and will shortly start petitioning the Government to change the law so that it becomes illegal for an employer to fire someone for saying something lawful in a personal rather than a professional capacity, whether in the pub, on WhatsApp or on social media. In the meantime, we are about to publish some FAQs so our members know what defences are available to them if they do run afoul of their employers’ social media policies.

This is also a problem at universities and we have at least two dozen student members who’ve got into trouble with the authorities for something they’ve said in a WhatsApp group or on social media. After we’ve published the FAQs about workplace social media policies we’re going to follow up with another about universities’ social media policies.

Scottish Hate Crime Bill Not as Bad as English Hate Crime Bill

Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has made an important concession recently, removing the clause in the Scottish Hate Crime Bill whereby people could be prosecuted if their words are “likely to” stir up hatred against members of protected groups. Instead, it will be necessary to show intent, as it is at present under the Public Order Act 1986 (with the exception of stirring up racial hatred, where it isn’t necessary).

That means the Scottish Hate Crime Bill now poses less of a threat to free speech than the new hate crime bill that’s been brought forward by the Law Commission of England and Wales. Not only is the Commission proposing to do away with the need to show intent, so that you can be prosecuted and sent to prison for seven years if your words (or cartoons) are “likely to” stir up hatred, but it wants to extend the number of protected characteristics to include sex and gender, among other things. And, like the Scottish Hate Crime Bill, the Commission wants to scrap the “dwelling exemption” from the Public Order Act, so you can be prosecuted for offensive words said in the privacy of your own home.

The Free Speech Union will shortly submit its response to the Law Commission’s consultation, which has been pulled together by Andrew Tettenborn, a law professor at Swansea University; but in the mean time you can read our briefing document about the grave threat the Commission’s recommendations pose to free speech here. If you want to respond yourself, you can do so here.

One of the most pernicious aspects of these proposals – should they become law – is that parents will worry about being reported to the police for “hate speech” by their own children. As the FSU’s Research Director Dr Radomir Tylecote has pointed out, pitting children against their parents in this way is a hallmark of a totalitarian society. I also wrote about this nightmarish prospect in the Spectator.

The FSU Weekly Briefing

I hope you’ve been enjoying the FSU’s weekly briefing for members in which we flag up the big free speech stories of the past seven days. But if you don’t want to receive this you can unsubscribe using the link at the bottom of each Friday’s email, or change your email preferences here.

Ofcom Latest

As members will know, the FSU is applying to the High Court for permission to challenge Ofcom’s “coronavirus guidance”, which limits what broadcasters are allowed to say about COVID-19 in a way we think is unlawful. A judge reviewed our application on 20th October and refused to grant it, but we have now applied for an oral permissions hearing where our barrister can present the case in person. That was initially scheduled for December 9th, but the barrister for the other side has asked for more time so it’s now likely to be in January. We will post updates as and when we get them to the fundraiser we’ve set up to cover any costs arising out of this lawsuit.

The Workers of England Union

A quick reminder that if you’re worried you might be put through a disciplinary procedure at work because your beliefs are at odds with your employer’s, you should consider joining the Workers of England Union. The WEU has won tens of thousands of pounds for members whose philosophical beliefs have been discriminated against.

We’ve negotiated a deal with the WEU whereby you can become a member for a fee of £25. Unlike other unions, the WEU will go to bat for its members as soon as they sign up. If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, you can join online here, but don’t forget to email them here first, letting them know you’re a member of the FSU.

Thanks again for becoming a part of the Free Speech Union. Building a new membership organisation during the coronavirus crisis hasn’t been easy – and at the time of writing it looks as though the restrictions will remain in place until next Easter! We hoped to launch a pro-free speech educational programme in sixth forms and universities this autumn, but have had to postpone that. Our activities have been limited to case work, research and staff recruitment – although we did manage to organise a couple of comedy nights at the beginning of the month before England was forced into lockdown again. To date we have over 7,000 members and are on target to reach 10,000 by the end of our first 12 months of operation. Apologies to those new members that haven’t received their welcome packs yet. We’re aiming to send the next batch out later this week.

Kind regards,

Signature: Toby Young

Toby Young