Blog

Sheffield University follow-up letter

I wrote to Jake Verity, the President of Sheffield University Students’ Union, last month to complain that a free speech society that some of our members had set up at the University had been designated a “red risk” by the Students’ Union. That means the society’s officers have to attend “risk assessment” training and cannot invite any speakers on to campus without first having to submit a list of prospective speakers to the Students’ Union three weeks ahead of time for “full and final approval”. The students reached out to the FSU for help and, with the aid of the Legal Advisory Council, I wrote to Mr Verity, copying in the Vice-Chancellor, reminding him that both the Students’ Union and the University have a legal duty to uphold freedom of expression, and asking him to reassure me that he won’t withhold approval from any speaker the society proposes to invite except in truly exceptional circumstances and when legally permitted to do so. You can read my letter here. After not receiving a reply for several weeks, I managed to attend a Zoom meeting of the Council of the Students’ Union as an “observer”. At that meeting I managed to get a Council member to ask Mr Verity why he still hadn’t responded to my letter. As a result, he did respond the following day, but he didn’t provide me with the assurances I was after. Consequently, I’ve written back, asking him to do so. You can read his letter here and my reply below.

Submission to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, issued a call earlier this year for submissions on academic freedom to help him prepare a report for the 75th Session of the General Assembly in the autumn. The Free Speech Union submitted the document you can read below which, in due course, will be published on the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This document represents the views of the Directors, but not necessarily the members of the advisory councils. The FSU is indebted to Professor Eric Kaufmann for helping to write this submission.

Letter to Change.org regarding Posie Parker

One of our members – Kellie-Jay Keen, more commonly known as Posie Parker – had a petition removed by Change.org on the grounds that information contained in her petition was “identified as hate speech”. The petition read: “Keep the dictionary definition of woman to mean adult human female.” This was in response to another petition calling for the Oxford English Dictionary to change the definition of woman to include “transgender woman”. Change.org claims to be a politically neutral platform that believes in free speech, yet it has taken down Posie Parker’s petition and left the other one on its platform where it has attracted nearly 35,000 signatures. We have written to Change.org asking them to reinstate Posie Parker’s petition, admit that they were wrong to remove it and acknowledge that saying a woman is an adult human female is not “hate speech”.

Letter to Sheffield University Student Union about the free speech society

In February, a group of students at Sheffield University tried to set up a free speech society, but when they applied for official recognition from the Students’ Union it was declined. The group appealed and won, but have now been told their society is a “red risk”. That means they must attend “risk assessment” training and cannot invite any speakers on to campus without first having to submit a list of prospective speakers to the Students’ Union three weeks ahead of time for “full and final approval”. (One of the co-founders of the society, Ewan Somerville, has written about the difficulties he and his colleagues have faced in the Telegraph.) The students are now worried that if they invite anyone controversial to speak, the Students’ Union will withhold permission. Two of them reached out to the Free Speech Union for help and, with the aid of the Legal Advisory Council, I wrote to the President of the Students’ Union, Jake Verity, copying in the Vice-Chancellor, reminding him that both the Students’ Union and the University have a legal duty to uphold freedom of expression and asking him to reassure me that he won’t withhold approval from any speaker the society proposes to invite except in truly exceptional circumstances and when legally permitted to do so. The letter was dated 2nd April. I finally received a reply on 1st May. You can read both my letter and Jake Verity’s reply below. The reply goes part of the way to meeting our concerns, but only part of the way, so I will be writing a follow-up letter shortly.

Letter to Ofcom Following its Decision to Sanction ITV and London Live

On April 20th, Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, reprimanded both ITV and London Live for comments made by Eamonn Holmes and David Icke about links between 5G technology and coronavirus. Holmes’s sin, according to the regulator, was to say on ITV’s This Morning that the theory linking 5G and coronavirus deserved to be discussed in the mainstream media, even though he agreed with his co-presenter that it was “not true and incredibly stupid”. Ofcom said that this view – the view that the theory deserved a public hearing – was “ill-judged and risked undermining viewers’ trust in advice from public authorities and scientific evidence” and could lead to “significant harm to the public”. (You can read the adjudications here.)

The Free Speech Union regards these decisions as highly inimical to freedom of expression for reasons that we have set out in this letter, which was sent to Ofcom on April 24th. During the coronavirus crisis, the state has substantially increased its powers and imposed restrictions on long-established liberties. However, no such restrictions have been placed by the Government on the right to free speech. In fact, it is vital that this right should be upheld so that the Government’s decision to impose wide-ranging restrictions can be scrutinised and challenged by broadcasters and others. We have asked Ofcom to withdraw these sanctions and issue a press release affirming the importance of free speech and assuring the public it will not seek to stifle the expression of dissenting views without strong and compelling reasons for concluding that such expression will cause harm.

Reply from Exeter College and the Free Speech Union’s Response

Professor Sir Rick Trainor, the Rector of Exeter College, has responded to the Free Speech Union’s complaint about the no-platforming of Professor Selina Todd on 29th February. You can see the FSU’s original complaint below, as well as Professor Trainor’s reply, the FSU’s response, and Professor Trainor’s reply to that. We are pleased the College took our complaint seriously and investigated it in good faith, and are generally satisfied with its response. But we have some reservations about the conclusions of the Complaints Panel, which we’ve set out in our response.