This is the final newsletter of 2020 – and what a year it’s been! When I launched the Free Speech Union with a group of likeminded people in February I said free speech had never been in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War. But in the past 10 months it’s become significantly more imperilled. The coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have combined to produce a kind of lockdown of the mind. If you challenge the prevailing orthodoxy in either of these areas you risk losing your livelihood – and many good people have. Forget the Second World War. It’s hard to think of a time in Britain or America in the last 200 years when there was less tolerance for dissenting voices.
Luckily, the Free Speech Union has been able to stand up for a few of these mavericks. In this newsletter I’ve highlighted a few of our success stories.
No-Platforming at Oxford
The FSU’s launch coincided with not one, but two no-platforming incidents at Oxford.
The first occurred on 1st March when Selina Todd, Oxford Professor of Modern History, was no-platformed at an event at Exeter College to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first women’s liberation conference at Oxford. Professor Todd was told the night before that her invitation to speak was being withdrawn because some of the other speakers had threatened to boycott the event if her speech went ahead. The issue, as it so often is when it comes to the no-platforming of feminists, is that Professor Todd is “gender critical”, i.e. sceptical about treating transwomen as if they’re legally and morally indistinguishable from women, entitled to exactly the same rights and protections.
We sent a letter of complaint to the Rector of Exeter College, Professor Sir Rick Trainor, and he set up a Complaint Panel made up of Fellows of the College to investigate. They concluded that Professor Todd’s freedom of speech had indeed been infringed. The Panel asked the College to conduct an urgent review of its procedures so as to minimise the risk of something like this happening again.
The Second incident occurred four days later when Amber Rudd, the ex-Conservative MP and former Home Secretary, was no-platformed by the UNWomen’s Oxford UK Society. Ms Rudd had been invited to speak at Christ Church in the run up to International Women’s Day. The event was due to take place at 7.30pm, but 30 minutes beforehand she was told the event had been cancelled. At this point, she had already travelled to Oxford at her own expense. The Society issued a statement on its Facebook page apologizing “for all and any hurt caused to our members and other wom*n [sic] and non binary people in Oxford over this event”.
The FSU sent a formal complaint to the Oxford University Proctors’ Office that you can read here. The Proctors’ Office then investigated the complaint and concluded the society in question was in breach of the University’s free speech policies. The Proctors de-registered the society and directed it to issue an apology to Ms Rudd, which it duly did.
The fact that we managed to successfully intervene to defend the rights of both Selina Todd and Amber Rudd meant the FSU was off to a flying start. The icing on the cake was a story in the Mail on Sunday on 12th April based on emails between Louise Richardson, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, and other senior administrators that it had got hold of via a Freedom of Information request. The emails revealed that Ms Richardson only decided to condemn the no-platforming of Amber Rudd after the University received the FSU’s letter of complaint. You can read that story here.
Victims of the Cultural Revolution
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th resulted in an explosion of protests and civil unrest across the Western world. If you publicly challenged any of the claims being made by Black Lives Matters and its supporters – or were just judged to be out of synch with the new cultural mood – you risked being cancelled. I’m not just talking about Grant Napear, who was fired from his job as a basketball commentator for tweeting “All Lives Matter”. Or even Aleksandar Katai, the LA Galaxy player who was “released” by the club following critical posts made by his wife about BLM protestors on Instagram. I’m talking about imaginary people too, like the characters played by David Walliams and Matt Lucas in Little Britain, the Major in Fawlty Towers and the Lego action figure Duke Detain. Any TV show depicting the police in a favourable light, from Paw Patrol to Cops, was taken off the air, and various white cast members of The Simpsons had to give up playing non-white characters. Racially insensitive products were ripped from supermarket shelves – Uncle Ben’s Rice, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake and Waffle Mix, Fair & Lovely skin lightening cream – and the Dixie Chicks were forced to change their name to “The Chicks” because Dixie refers to the southern states of the US that broke away to form the new Confederate States of America. Nothing and nobody was safe from these Witch-Finder Generals – they even cancelled Eskimo Pies, a much-loved American ice cream snack.
In the month of June we were contacted by numerous people who had either been fired, suspended or who were “under investigation” for having fallen foul of the new, ultra-woke orthodoxy. One of these was Stu Peters, a Manx Radio chat show host who was suspended from his job for challenging the concept of “white privilege” in a heated conversation with a caller. Partly thanks to our efforts, his story attracted considerable publicity in the national press and a petition to reinstate him got over 8,000 supporters. After an investigation by the Isle of Man’s Communications Commission, whom we wrote to in Stu’s defence, he was given his old job back. You can read about his case here.
Another person we were able to help was Nick Buckley. He was fired by a charity for vulnerable young people in Manchester after writing a blog post in which he took issue with some of the policies of the BLM organisation, such as dismantling capitalism. When he republished his post on LinkedIn, a “poet” called Reece Williams wrote the following comment: “Please know that we will be doing everything in our power to have you removed from your position. Expect us.” Nick wasn’t all that concerned because he founded the charity, had been running it successfully for nine years, and was awarded an MBE for his efforts last year. But in 2020’s Maoist climate that wasn’t enough to save him. A petition calling for him to be fired was set up on Change.org and a week later he’d lost his job.
We found Nick a good lawyer in the form of Geoffrey Davies, a member of our Legal Advisory Council, and started a counter-petition to get him reinstated that attracted over 15,000 signatures, more than 30 times the number that had signed the original. Geoffrey quickly discovered that the charity’s trustees, in their haste to get rid of Nick, hadn’t followed the correct procedure and were personally liable for his unpaid salary until the end of 2021. One by one they resigned, new trustees were appointed in their place and the first thing they did was to reinstate Nick as CEO. You can watch a short video we made in which he talks about his ordeal and why everyone should join the FSU.
No-Platforming at Exeter
We swung into action again in September to defend Caroline Farrow, a Catholic journalist who was no-platformed by the University of Exeter Debating Society. Caroline was due to speak in a debate on whether prostitution should be legalised, but she was notified at 11am the day before that she’d been disinvited because of her religious beliefs on a range of LGBT issues. This was a clear case of no-platforming and a breach of the University of Exeter’s Freedom of Speech policy.
As soon as Caroline told us what had happened, we wrote to the newly-installed Vice-Chancellor of Exeter, Professor Lisa Roberts, letting her know that if she didn’t intervene to make sure Caroline’s invitation was reinstated the University would be in breach of its legal duty to protect free speech, as set out in the Education (Nº 2) Act 1986, which was passed, in part, to prevent the no-platforming of visiting speakers at British universities. In particular, it would be a breach of s.43(a) of the Act, which requires universities to “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”. This Act and these words are referred to in Exeter’s Freedom of Speech policy.
Thankfully, after receiving my letter, Professor Roberts acted quickly. I received a response from the Vice-Chancellor’s Office at 9.22pm on the day I sent the letter informing me that Caroline had now been re-invited. The following day – the day of the debate – there was another attempt to no-platform Caroline and the Vice-Chancellor had to intervene for a second time to put a stop to it. Top marks to the Vice-Chancellor for holding firm.
As Guido said, “They would have got away with it if wasn’t for that pesky Free Speech Union…”
Darren Grimes is Investigated for Interviewing David Starkey
On 7th October, the journalist and Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes received an email from a Metropolitan Police officer notifying him that he was being investigated for the crime of stirring up racial hatred under the Public Order Act 1986 and asking him to submit himself for an interview at Kingston Police Station under caution. This was because of a broadcast interview Darren had done with Dr David Starkey at the end of June in which the historian had used the phrase “damn blacks”.
This was an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press. Dr Starkey’s remarks didn’t come anywhere near meeting the threshold for stirring up racial hatred – he was using the word “damn” for emphasis, not to condemn black people, and he praised the contributions BAME people had made to British society in the same interview. But even if they did meet the threshold, that was no reason to investigate Darren. Are journalists now going to be held criminally responsible if the people they interview say something potentially unlawful?
Luckily, Darren is a member of the Free Speech Union so we were able to find him a top criminal solicitor in the form of Luke Gittos, a member of our Legal Advisory Council. In addition, I helped Darren publicise his case and before long he’d attracted support from across the political spectrum, including Sajid Javid, the ex-Home Secretary, Tim Farron, the former leader of the Lib Dems, and Ash Sarkar, the left-wing activist.
A few days later, it was David Starkey’s turn to be summoned for a police interview. He, too, is a member of the Free Speech Union, so I asked Luke to represent him as well. As before, most commentators expressed astonishment at the heavy-handedness of the police. Dr Starkey had apologised unreservedly for his remarks and paid a heavy price, losing his Cambridge fellowship, giving up a visiting professorship at Canterbury Christ Church University and having his book contract cancelled by HarperCollins. Would he really have to suffer the humiliation of a police interview as well?
After Luke Gittos and the FSU had mounted a robust defence and succeeded in whipping up a public outcry, the police announced they had turned the investigation over to a “senior officer” for “review” and in the meantime Darren and David would no longer have to submit themselves for interview. This looked like the beginning of a climbdown, and so it proved to be. A week later, the police said they were dropping the investigation against both of them. Their ordeal was over. You can watch a short video we made with Darren about the episode here.
Defending a Professor at Chicago University
In November, 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 on YouTube expressing his reservations about the way Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have been discussed and implemented on campus.
In these videos Prof Abbot expressed some very reasonable misgivings about the University’s DEI efforts and expressed concern that a climate of fear is “making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions”. Shortly after uploading them, Abbot’s concerns were confirmed when 58 students and postdocs at the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and 71 other graduate students and postdocs from other University of Chicago departments, wrote a letter saying that the Professor’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 have ostracised and shamed Prof Abbot and made it difficult for him to continue teaching.
Putting aside the evident bad faith of Prof Abbot’s would-be censors, these demands ran 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 unequivocal commitment to free and open inquiry.
The petition 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 departments in any way. It quickly attracted several thousand signatures, many of them from distinguished academics, such as Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.
Three days after we launched the petition, which went on to attract over 13,000 signatures, President Zimmer did exactly what we asked 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.
This was a fantastic result. Not only was Prof Abbot’s future secure, but thanks to the actions of its President the University of Chicago had confirmed its status as a beacon of academic freedom for universities around the world.
Not long after this, we achieved a similar result at the University of McGill in Montreal. It was the same story: a group of student activists wrote an open letter calling for the defenestration of a dissident academic. We launched a petition in his defence and a few days later the Vice-Principal issued a statement affirming McGill’s commitment to academic free speech and defending the academic’s right to be as controversial as he liked.
Julie Burchill’s Book is Cancelled
One of the more unlikely people to be cancelled this year was Julie Burchill. Surely, anyone who hires the controversial columnist knows they’re signing up a professional provocateur? But apparently not. After Julie got into a Twitter spat earlier this month with Ash Sarkar, the left-wing activist, Little, Brown announced it would no longer be publishing her book. Ironically, the book’s title is Welcome to the Woke Trials. The row broke out after Sarkar engaged in a bit of offence archaeology, digging up a throwaway line by Rod Liddle in an eight year-old Spectator article in which he said he had avoided becoming a teacher because he couldn’t trust himself not to try and have sex with his teenage pupils. Sarkar accused Liddle of making light of child rape. Burchill took Liddle’s side and asked the Muslim Sarkar about Muhammad’s child bride Aisha.
Julie is a member of the FSU and Bryn Harris, our Chief Legal Counsel, along with Dr Larry George, a member of our Legal Advisory Council, took up the cudgels on her behalf. After a protracted exchange of emails, Julie’s publisher agreed to pay her the advance in full and return the rights to the book so she could take it elsewhere. Already, her agent has had five offers.
In addition to these high profile cases, we fought battles on behalf of dozens of other members and managed to win quite a few of them. Where we weren’t successful, we were still able to offer moral support and, in one case, managed to extract an apology from an employer even though he wasn’t willing to reinstate. Those members who have got into trouble this year and who we’ve tried to help often tell us that the really important thing for them was knowing there’s an organisation out there willing to defend them. As someone who’s been targeted by an outrage mob myself, I know how isolated and alone you can feel in that situation. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I started the FSU.
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 in 2020 hasn’t been easy – and the Government has just placed another 20 million people in Tier 4 taking the total of those living under the toughest restrictions up to 44 million. Our activities have been limited to case work, research and staff recruitment. Nevertheless, we’ve managed to sign up 7,500 members and hope to meet our target of 10,000 by next spring.
Happy New Year.