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.

Letter to ITV About Piers Morgan’s Departure from Good Morning Britain.

The Free Speech Union has written to Dame Carolyn McCall, CEO of ITV, to ask for clarification about the departure of Piers Morgan from Good Morning Britain. According to press reports, Morgan left after senior managers at ITV insisted that he apologise for his remarks about the Duchess of Sussex on Good Morning Britain on Monday the 8th of March. If that’s true, it is deeply concerning, particularly if ITV’s insistence on an apology was partly prompted by a complaint the Duchess of Sussex herself made to ITV. Public broadcasters should not force their journalists to apologise if they say something that upsets rich and powerful celebrities or members of the Royal Family. Not only does that have worrying implications for free speech, but it could be a breach of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.

Letter to Adam Smith Business School About No-Platforming of Professor Gregory Clark Signed by Over 70 Academics

Prof Gregory Clark

The Free Speech Union has pulled together a letter, signed by over 70 academics, objecting to the cancellation of a seminar by Professor Gregory Clark at Glasgow University’s Adam Smith Business School. The seminar, entitled ‘For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls: a lineage of 400,000 individuals 1750-2020 shows genetics determines most social outcomes’, was due to be given last month, but was “postponed” at the last minute after more than 100 Glasgow academics wrote to the Principal urging him to cancel it. The letter in support of Professor Clark points out that s26 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 imposes a legal duty on higher education providers to uphold academic free speech. In addition, Glasgow University issued a statement on academic freedom in 2018 saying it supports the right of “individuals, groups and societies to arrange events, conferences, lectures and seminars on challenging topics with speakers who may be controversial”.

Letter to Professor Nollent regarding recent changes to the University of Law’s Student Discipline Regulations.

We have written to the Vice Chancellor and CEO of the University of Law, concerning recent changes to the University of Law’s Student Discipline Regulations. 

A new section entitled ‘Evidence and Supporting Documentation’ appears to encourage what is commonly called “sousveillance” – the practice of one student informing on other students, using “multiple forms such as email threads, or screen shots of SMS messaging or other media”. While the University will protect the identity of the complainant, it offers no such protection to the student complained of, whose identity may well be made public.

The Department for Education’s recently issued command paper Higher Education: free speech and academic freedom sets out the best practice that the Department expects from higher education providers (HEPs). It stipulates: “The HEP should not encourage students to inform upon other students for lawful free speech, nor should they pay, or otherwise reward, students for doing so.”

The Student Discipline Regulations appear to contravene this. Though they do not offer to pay or reward students, they do promise to remove significant disincentives for any student who wishes to inform on other students for exercising their free speech. 

We call on the University of Law actively to discourage doxxing, online harassment and bullying. We also believe that fostering a culture of informing on students in this way interferes with students’ free expression, usually by inhibiting the enjoyment of humour – a key element of student culture and life.

The University should not aspire to make its students miserable. This policy is highly likely to lead to an oppressive and unhealthy atmosphere. Students at the University of Law should not have to look over their shoulders for fear of who may be listening in.

UPDATE: We have now received a reply from the Vice Chancellor, Professor Nollent – see below.

Letter to Merseyside Police about their advan message stating that being offensive is an offence.

We have written to the Chief Constable of Merseyside Police following the uproar over their inclusion of a message on the side of a van in the Wirral that was supposed to express the police’s solidarity with LGBTQI+ community: “Being offensive is an offence.” It isn’t, obviously, and when their error was pointed out Merseyside Police at least had the good grace to issue an apology. We have asked the Chief Constable to explain how his force got the law so badly wrong and why his officers are apparently ignorant of their legal obligation to safeguard freedom of expression. We have also asked him to confirm that Merseyside Police have not interviewed or arrested anyone merely for the imaginary crime of being offensive. We know from FOI requests submitted by the press that police forces in England and Wales investigated 120,000 non-crime hate incidents in the past five years. That is an average of more than 65 a day. Have Merseyside Police investigated other non-crimes as well, such as the non-crime of saying something offensive?

Facebook Apologises After the Free Speech Union organised a powerful coalition of MPs and peers to Sign a Letter to Nick Clegg Objecting to Facebook’s Advertising Ban on a Unionist Think Tank

Facebook has issued an apology to one of our founder members after the Free Speech Union helped to assemble a powerful coalition of MPs and peers to object to the company’s censorship of a well-known journalist and vocal critic of the SNP.

The parliamentarians, who included the Chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, former chancellor Lord Lamont and former Labour MP Kate Hoey, wrote to Sir Nick Clegg, the Vice-President of Facebook and Chair of its Oversight Board, criticising the decision to ban attempts by Brian Monteith, a former member of the Scottish Parliament, to advertise articles in his conservative online magazine.

In an open letter to the former Deputy Prime Minister, the MPs and peers claimed that Monteith had been the victim of “vexatious, politically motivated complaints by SNP activists”, saying that “articles that are critical of Scotland’s SNP Government receive a torrent of abuse from independence supporters…”

Letter to the Football Association About Taking the Knee

QPR’s Dominic Ball declines to take the knee

During the brief window in December when a small number of fans were allowed back into football grounds, one of our members got into trouble for booing players taking the knee. Some other fans complained to the club, where he was a season ticket holder, and he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to return to the stadium until he’d met with some club officials. The FSU appointed a barrister to accompany him to the meeting and, after he was able to satisfy the officials that he wasn’t a racist, the ban was lifted.

We think it’s wrong for football clubs to punish fans who boo players taking the knee – something that’s happened at a number of football clubs, including Cambridge United. The gesture has become inextricably linked with Black Lives Matter, a political movement spearheaded by a left-wing organisation. We take no view on the politics of BLM – we would be taking our member’s side if he’d been punished for applauding the players’ gesture or roaring his approval. The point is, it cannot be right to permit players to express their views about this political movement on the pitch, but prohibit fans from expressing theirs in the stands. In the case of our member, he didn’t boo because he disapproves of BLM, but because he wants to keep politics out of football. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to express that view, provided he does so in a lawful and peaceful way?

Letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University about the student union’s decision to force student societies to cancel all their speaker events

Last week, we were contacted by a former student at Exeter University to tell us that the students’ union had contacted every student society, including the debating society, asking them to cancel any events they’d organised with external speakers. The letter was dated 27 January and the societies were asked to cancel their events from 28 January. If they wanted to rearrange any of these events, the letter said, they would be “required to re-submit” them for approval by the students’ union which was currently reviewing its Digital Events Protocol and External Speaker Policy. But these new policies weren’t yet in place and no date was given for when they would be. In effect, the students’ union had, at a stroke, no-platformed every single external speaker for the remainder of the term – and possibly next term, too, depending on how long it takes the union’s officials to put the new policies in place.

The reasons the union is doing this – and doing it in the middle of term, when it is guaranteed to cause maximum disruption – were not properly explained. Something about a new CEO having been appointed and “planning for a new direction” and because “existing digital event protocols are inadequate and expose our student leaders to significant risk”. But what sort of “risk”, given that all events are taking place online at the moment? The “risk” of hearing an argument that challenges your point of view? That sounds like sarcasm, but it may be the actual reason. The person who contacted us said they thought this “review” was prompted by complaints over the invitation of Claire Fox and Joanne Williams (both members of our Advisory Council) to speak at a debate in Exeter on 22 January.

Letter to Baroness Royall regarding Unconscious Bias Training at Somerville College

Former Somerville student Margaret Thatcher

One of our members, a student at Somerville College, Oxford, contacted us after receiving an email form the College Principal, Baroness Royall, informing them that all students at Somerville were required to take an unconscious bias training course and score 100% in the course assessment. Our member was understandably anxious that if they refused to take this course, or scored less than 100%, they might face disciplinary action.

We wrote to Lady Royall, pointing out that insisting our member take this course could be a breach of their contract with the College and, further, that requiring them to get a perfect score in the course assessment, since it involved them answering at least one of the questions in a way they believed to be false, is a breach of the Human Rights Act 1996 and the Equalities Act 2010.

Baroness Royall replied to our letter, acknowledging that she had made a mistake. “On reflection, it has been agreed that completing the test with less than 100% will be seen as the opportunity for a chat about the issues involved, nothing more.” She continued: “I am happy to confirm that there was never even the slightest question of disciplinary action following a student not completing the test or scoring less than 100%.”