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Letter to the Morning Star Regarding Stella Perrett

We have written to Ben Chacko, editor of the Morning Star, to complain about his treatment of Ms Stella Perrett, a cartoonist and a member of the Free Speech Union.

Ms Perrett has been contributing cartoons to the Morning Star for over five years and in 2016 Mr Chacko described her as one of the paper’s “star cartoonists”. In 2018, he praised her and the paper’s other cartoonists for their “sharp-edged satire”.

Yet when a cartoon of hers in the paper on the weekend of 22nd – 23rd February it attracted criticism from trans activists, Chacko did not stand by her. (The cartoon depicted a crocodile entering a pond full of newts saying, “Don’t worry your pretty little heads. I’m transitioning as a newt!”) Instead of defending Ms Perrett, Mr Chacko terminated the paper’s relationship with her, apologised for publishing the cartoon and traduced her reputation. In a “Mea Culpa” published in the paper, he compared Ms Perrett’s cartoon to a “transphobic hate crime”, and accused her, indirectly, of “bullying and harassment”. Shortly afterwards, she lost her job working for the Public and Commercial Services Union.

It goes without saying that the cartoon doesn’t come anywhere near the threshold that would justify this kind of treatment. It doesn’t threaten violence and cannot reasonably be said to affect any person’s safety. While some may view it as offensive, that doesn’t begin to excuse the manner in which Ms Perrett was treated. “Sharp-edged satire” will inevitably offend some people; if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be “sharp-edged”.

We have asked Mr Chacko to apologise to our member and make it clear that his implied characterisation of her as a transphobe and a homophobe, and his depiction of her cartoon as a form of bullying and harassment, is unjustified. Alternatively, we have asked him to give her a right of reply in the pages of the Morning Star.

UPDATE: Ben Chacko has responded in a way that satisfied Stella Perrett and this case is now closed. The Mail on Sunday wrote about Stella’s case here.

Letter to the Isle of Man Communications Commission About Stuart Peters

The Free Speech Union has written to the Isle of Man Communications Commission following the news that it is investigating Manx Radio over remarks made by one of our members – Mr Stuart Peters, who presents the Late Show. The investigation concerns statements made by Mr Peters on the Late Show in a conversation with a caller into the programme, Mr Jordan Maguire, on Wednesday 3rd June.

In the conversation between them, Mr Peters contested the assertion that he has benefited from “white privilege”. This cannot conceivably justify any investigation by the Commission. Surely, in challenging the idea that all white people are, by virtue of the colour of their skin, “privileged” and cannot fully grasp the problem of racism, Mr Peters was complying with the Commission’s ‘Programme Code’, e.g. upholding the principle that “racist terms” and “insensitive comments”, as well as “stereotypical portrayals” that might “cause offence”, are unacceptable. Whether you agree with Mr Peters’ views or not, it is clear that he was exercising his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Commission on Human Rights, which the Isle of Man is required to uphold under the Human Rights Act 2001.

The death of Mr George Floyd in the United States raises important issues about the criminal-justice system, and whether all races are treated equally in the eyes of the law – on both sides of the Atlantic – and these issues should be discussed in the public square. If we are to fully explore this issue and rectify any injustices, it is essential that all parties are free to discuss the matter without fear of censure. We cannot hope to get to the bottom of the issue if some people in this discussion feel they cannot express their views for fear of being publicly shamed or jeopardising their livelihoods.

Accordingly, we have written to the Commission and asked it to explain why it has launched an investigation into this matter, to confirm that it will be terminating the investigation and exonerating Mr Peters, and to make it clear that no such investigation will be started again in similar circumstances.

Letter to Ofcom Asking For its Censorious Coronavirus Guidance to be Withdrawn

In my capacity as the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, I wrote to the Chief Executive of Ofcom, Dame Melanie Dawes, on 24th April to complain about its reprimand of Eamonn Holmes. According to the regulator, the breakfast television presenter had said something that “could have undermined people’s trust in the views being expressed by the authorities on the Coronavirus and the advice of mainstream sources of public health information“. Holmes’s sin, in Ofcom’s eyes, was to say on ITV’s This Morning on 13th April that any theory running counter to the official Government line – such as the one linking 5G masts and COVID19 – deserved to be discussed in the mainstream media. This was in spite of him saying the 5G conspiracy was “not true and incredibly stupid”. Ofcom said this view – the view that such theories deserved a public hearing, not that they were in any way right or plausible – was “ill-judged and risked undermining viewers’ trust in advice from public authorities and scientific evidence”.

In my letter to Dame Melanie, I pointed out that if Ofcom is going to prohibit views being discussed on television that might risk undermining viewers’ trust in public authorities during this crisis, that could easily be extended to anyone challenging the Government’s official line on a number of issues, not just the link between the virus and 5G masts. For instance, would Ofcom have reprimanded a broadcaster that challenged the advice of Public Health England, issued on 25th February, that it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”? That advice was supposedly based on “scientific evidence”, yet as we now know it turned out to be wrong and the fact that hospitals discharged elderly patients back into care homes without first confirming that they were not infected with COVID-19 is one of the reasons that, according to the ONS, as of 1st May, 37.4% of all Covid deaths in England and Wales have occurred in care homes.

As I said in my letter, given that bad advice and misinformation about the virus is being disseminated in the public square, both by authorities like Public Health England and conspiracy theorists like David Icke, the best way to minimise harm befalling the public is not to prohibit public discussion of that advice and information, but to encourage it, so that members of the public (and care home managers) can make informed decisions about what advice to follow and what information to believe. To take the example of the theory Eamonn Holmes was referring to, if broadcasters aren’t allowed to discuss whether there’s a connection between 5G masts and the symptoms associated with COVID-19 – and present its exponents with the overwhelming evidence that there is no such connection – people are more likely to believe the theory, not less. They will think, “If it’s untrue, why is discussion of it forbidden by a state regulator?” As the US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in his famous Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies… the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” In other words, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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.