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Letter concerning the OUSU project to set up a “Student Consultancy of Sensitivity Readers”.

We have written to Oxford University Student Union about their decision to establish a ‘sensitivity reader’ service for student newspapers at the University. While much press attention has focused on the Cherwell, the older of Oxford’s student newspapers, we are more concerned about the Oxford Student. The publisher of the Oxford Student is owned outright by OUSU, and run by senior union officers. 

Although the proposed service will be voluntary, it is hard to see how the Oxford Student could use it without being seen to compromise its editorial independence. This strikes us as an inappropriate decision for a newspaper proprietor to make, and one that puts its title in a difficult position. We suggest that proper safeguards be put in place to preserve the Oxford Student’s independence from its powerful proprietor.

Letter to IKEA About GB News

We’ve written to all the companies that have stopped advertising on GB News in response to pressure from the left-wing lobby group Stop Funding Hate. Rather than put them all on here, we’ve include the one to IKEA as an example. Initially, IKEA said it wouldn’t advertise on the new channel again, but later walked this back to saying it would make a decision in ‘due course’. We respect the right of these companies to choose who they wish to advertise with, but we don’t think they should base those decisions on misinformation disseminated by a group of online activists with a political agenda.

Letter to the University of Exeter concerning accreditation of courses in the College of Social Sciences and International Studies.

We’ve written to University of Exeter’s College of Social Sciences and International Studies to warn them that their process for approving courses leaves them open to legal challenge. Academics wishing to propose new or amended modules must demonstrate how their course broadens horizons by ‘moving away from a white, Eurocentric curriculum.’ We believe this is an impermissible restriction on academic freedom. Academics should be free to determine for themselves how the horizons of knowledge can be broadened – whether that means embracing white Eurocentrism, rejecting it, or ignoring it entirely.

The College’s policy goes against Exeter’s previous good work in concluding an ‘Agreement on academic freedom’ in 2009. The agreement, much to Exeter’s credit, protects academics’ right to ‘teach without any interference’, prohibits attempts to force them ‘to instruct against their own best knowledge and conscience’, and guarantees them a ‘significant role in determining the curriculum.’ 

Our letter puts the University on notice that commitments to protect academic freedom have legal force, and should be honoured. We hope the College will reconsider its policy, before any academic falling foul of it brings a claim.

UPDATE

The University replied to us as follows:

We accept these are complex areas and will continue to work with academic staff to ensure their right to academic freedom is protected in line with the University’s academic freedom agreement and our relevant articles of governance. This will include undertaking a full review of our academic freedom agreement during the 2021-22 Academic Year to ensure that it reflects the expectations of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

We have responded with a freedom of information request to uncover further details about how the policy came about and how it is being implemented.

Read below the full text of our letter to Professor Lisa Roberts, Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter.

Letter to Russell Group Universities About Reporting Websites

We’ve written to the CEO of the Russell Group, as well as the Vice-Chancellors of all 24 Russell Group universities, advising them that the reporting schemes they’ve set up to enable students and staff to make complaints – about ‘micro-aggressions’, for instance – do not take account of their legal duty to uphold free speech and may render them vulnerable to legal challenge, particularly after the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has become law. You can read more about these websites in the MailOnline.

UPDATE: Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group has responded. You can read the full text of his letter below.
UPDATE: We have replied to Dr Tim Bradshaw’s response – see below for details.

Letter to Gavin Williamson regarding Trent College in Nottingham and its treatment of former chaplain, Dr Bernard Randall

Dr Bernard Randall

We’ve written a letter to the Education Secretary about the shoddy treatment of Dr Bernard Randall, the chaplain who lost his job at a fee-paying CofE school after he preached a sermon urging the pupils to make up their own minds about LGBT issues and not just uncritically accept the prevailing orthodoxy. (The Mail on Sunday covered the story here.) The sermon, which you can read here, was a model of fair-mindedness, reminding the pupils that no one has a monopoly on moral truth, whether it’s traditional Christians or LGBT activists, and stressing how important it is to approach ethical disagreements with humility, tolerance and courtesy. In response, the school reported him to Prevent, the anti-terrorism unit, as if this sermon might have radicalised the students and made them targets for recruitment by far right extremists. We have asked the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP if his matter can be investigated by the Department for Education as a matter of urgency.

Letter to Professor Stephen Toope regarding Cambridge’s ‘Report and Support’ website

Last week, the Telegraph‘s Camilla Turner revealed that Cambridge University had put a new reporting system in place, whereby students and staff were encouraged to report on other members of the University for various “inappropriate behaviour”, including giving someone a backhanded compliment, turning your back on certain people or not using someone’s preferred gender pronouns.

It was widely condemned, with one don saying: “Heated disagreement on many academic subjects are likely to become impossible. They have effectively laid out the pitchforks, and it is now up to the woke mob to pick them up.”

We told the Telegraph: “Cambridge University has just put a robust new free speech policy in place, which the Vice-Chancellor has welcomed. Why, then, has he approved this sinister new reporting system?”

We wrote to Professor Stephen Toope, the Vice-Chancellor (see below), pointing out that the new reporting website, along with the list of reportable offences, was incompatible with the University’s legal duty under the Education (No 2) Action 1986 to uphold free speech, and threatening to take the University to the High Court.

Today, Camilla Turner has written a follow-up story, revealing the website has been taken down.

Prof Toope said that since the website’s launch last week, “it has come to light that certain ancillary material was included in error”. He explained that the entire website had been taken offline while the material in question was removed, adding that the university had launched an investigation into how it was included in the first place.

“I believe that some of the statements and examples in this material go beyond the approved policy framework and would undermine its impact,” he said.

“The website has been temporarily taken down while that material is removed. I have asked senior staff to look into how this error occurred.”

We’re delighted that Cambridge has removed the website and will apply for a judicial review if it appears again in anything like its original form. We also stand ready to defend any of our Cambridge members who find themselves under investigation for ‘misgendering’ someone or any other lawful exercise of their right to free speech.

Letter to the Rt Hon Mark Drakeford regarding The Welsh Government’s Race Equality Action Plan

Professor Andrew Tettenborn, a member of the Free Speech Union’s Legal Advisory Council, has written to the Rt Hon Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, to respond to his Government’s consultation about its Race Equality Action Plan, an anti-racist initiative inspired, in part, by the protests that followed the death of George Floyd last year.

Professor Tettenborn has a number of concerns. For instance, he makes the following two points about the proposal to include mandatory anti-racism teaching in Welsh schools:

(i) Matters such as the pervasive existence of structural or systemic racism, the equal validity of ‘lived experience’ when set alongside other forms of knowledge, such as that based on empirical data, and the existence of ‘white privilege’, are extremely controversial and if taught as incontrovertible fact would require teachers to take a side in subjects of ongoing legitimate public debate. No child should be taught any of this as incontrovertible fact, but, rather, they should be introduced to these ideas alongside other points of view – such as the views expressed in the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report – in a politically balanced way.

(ii) Equally, in line with the aim of the education system to produce confident and articulate children, no child should be sanctioned, punished or disadvantaged for disagreeing with statements of the existence of such matters. For instance, a child should not be made to feel ignorant or morally blind by their teacher or by their classmates if they challenge the concept of ‘white privilege’.

You can read the full text of Prof Tettenborn’s letter below.

UPDATE: Dr April-Louise Pennant, the Race Equality Action Plan development officer, has responded. You can read the full text of her letter below.

Letter to Ofcom regarding complaints about Julia Hartley-Brewer’s comments on ITV’s This Morning

An appearance by Julia Hartley-Brewer on ITV’s This Morning on 15 April resulted in 203 complaints being made to Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator. Her sin was to make fun of Meghan Merkle, the Duchess of Sussex. (You can read about the brouhaha in the Mail.) The Free Speech Union wrote to the Chief Executive of Ofcom, pointing out that what she said was not a breach of the Broadcasting Code:

Even if the comment could be deemed offensive in accordance with section 2.3, the context clearly did justify it. Ms Hartley-Brewer was referring to an ongoing controversy about the veracity of the Duchess’s claims about racism within the Royal Family – claims which potentially affect the Queen’s standing as head of state and head of the Commonwealth. As you will be aware, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Ofcom must act in accordance with, grants a wide freedom to discuss matters of public interest and controversy, and especially so for journalists and broadcasters such as Ms Hartley-Brewer.

You can read the letter in full below.

Stop Press: Ofcom replied to us on 26 April to tell us that it has decided not to investigate the matter any further.

Letter to Gavin Williamson About Batley Grammar School

We have written to the Education Secretary urging him to amend the guidance issued by the Department for Education in 2014 on the promotion of British values in schools so it includes a duty to promote free speech. As it stands, the guidance says: “All have a duty to ‘actively promote’ the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” The difficulty with this is that it does not stipulate what should take priority in the event of a conflict arising between the first three fundamental British values and the fourth – leading to the kind of behaviour we witnessed from the headteacher of Batley Grammar School last week. On the face of it, the headteacher could defend his decision to apologise to the protestors, describe his teacher’s use of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as “completely inappropriate” and suspend him from duty on the grounds that he is complying with his obligation to actively promote “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.

You could argue that asking schools to promote “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” does not require schools to grant religious groups a veto over what is taught in the classroom because doing so would be disrespecting secular humanism, which should enjoy the same protections as religious faiths. However, in practice schools typically interpret the need to promote “mutual respect and tolerance” as requiring them to prioritise the sacred beliefs of some faiths above others, as we saw in this case. The head clearly thought his obligation to respect the beliefs of the Muslim protestors at the school gates trumped his obligation to respect the secular beliefs of his Religious Studies teacher.

We have therefore asked the Education Secretary to add the following sentence to the official guidance, making it clear that freedom of expression should take priority over the avoidance of giving offense: “Schools should also ‘actively promote’ the British value of free speech and in the event of some people being offended by a school’s upholding of that right, freedom of expression within the law should take priority.”

UPDATE: Sachin Shah, Deputy Director, Counter-Extremism and Non-School Education Division has responded. You can read the full text of this letter below our letter to Gavin Williamson.

Batley Grammar School Fails to Stand Up For Free Speech

We were disappointed by the response of the headteacher of Batley Grammar School to the demands of a religious mob at his school gates on Thursday morning demanding he sack a Religious Studies teacher. The teacher’s sin, if media reports are accurate, was to have shown his pupils some of the controversial cartoons of Muhammad that appeared in Charlie Hebdo in the course of teaching them about that controversy in which 12 people were murdered by Islamist terrorists. This was exactly the same sin that led to the brutal murder of Samuel Paty by an Islamist terrorist in a suburb of Paris last year. But instead of standing up for the teacher’s right to free speech, the head made a grovelling apology to the mob, described the cartoons as “completely inappropriate” and suspended the teacher.