This is our third FSU newsletter. In case you missed the first one – or hadn’t signed up at that point – we’re archiving the newsletters on our website here. You may have to log in to view them since that page is only visible to members. (Your login details were sent to you when you first signed up.)
At the end of March, when the UK went into lockdown, rights that the British people have taken for granted for hundreds of years were suspended, some dating back to the 12th Century. As the former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption says, it has been the greatest interference with personal liberty in our history – and that includes wartime. The right to free speech was not suspended on March 23rd, but it has often felt as if it was, particularly for those who dissent from the official coronavirus narrative. In the past nine weeks, our members have been kicked out of Facebook groups, suspended by Twitter and had their videos removed by YouTube, all for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy about the pandemic and how the Government should respond to it. We’ve been doing what we can to defend them, but it’s not easy in the current climate in which any form of dissent is seen as “dangerous”. The pandemic seems to have created an army of petty martinets, ready with their red pens to censor anyone who doesn’t subscribe to Covid orthodoxy.
Among the cases we’ve taken up is that of Eamonn Holmes, reprimanded by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom for supposedly undermining public confidence in the Government’s social distancing rules. Holmes’s sin, according to the regulator, was to say on ITV’s This Morning that the theory linking 5G masts and the symptoms ascribed to 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 this view – the view that the theory deserved a public hearing, not that it was plausible – 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”.
I wrote to the Chief Executive of Ofcom Dame Melanie Dawes on 24th April, taking issue with this. If Ofcom is going to prohibit all points of view being discussed on television that might risk undermining viewers’ trust in public authorities during this crisis, that would extend to anyone challenging the Government’s official line on a number of issues, not just 5G masts. For instance, would Ofcom have reprimanded a broadcaster who challenged the Government’s initial advice that it was “very unlikely” that care home residents would be affected by the virus? That, too, was supposedly based on “scientific evidence”, yet as we now know it turned out to be wrong. As I said in my letter, prohibiting public debate about the Government’s advice during this crisis is likely to lead to a lack of confidence in that advice, not the other way round. Put simply, if broadcasters aren’t allowed to challenge those making a connection between 5G masts and the symptoms associated with COVID-19 and present them with evidence to the contrary, people are more likely to believe there’s a connection, not less. 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.” Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
In my letter I asked Ofcom to withdraw its reprimand of Holmes and issue a press release affirming the importance of freedom of expression, providing assurances that in future it will not seek to stifle the expression of dissenting views. I will let you know how Ofcom responds and, depending on that response, what we intend to do about it. This is a particularly worrying case because the UK Government is minded to enlarge Ofcom’s responsibilities to include regulating social media under the proposals set out in the Online Harms White Paper. You can read my letter to Ofcom here.
Scottish Hate Crime Bill
Another alarming development is the Hate Crime Bill that’s been brought forward by the Scottish Government. It is already an offence under Scottish law to stir up racial hatred, but the legislation will extend this so it applies to “stirring up hatred” against people on the basis of their religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, transgender identity or variations in sexual characteristics, where “stirring up hatred” is defined as behaving in “a threatening, abusive or insulting manner” to a member of one of these groups, either with the intent to stir up hatred or where that is the likely outcome.
As you can tell at a glance, this is an absurdly broad definition of “hate crime” and will enable groups claiming to speak for people in these protected categories to lobby the authorities to prosecute anyone who challenges their ideology on the grounds that doing so is likely to stir up hatred. Under this new law, not only will those who challenge identitarian dogma be vulnerable to prosecution, but anyone who possesses “inflammatory material” will be too, as will theatre producers who put on plays expressing these forbidden ideas and the actors who perform in them. If the Bill passes, Scotland will become the most aggressive regulator of speech in the United Kingdom and one of the most belligerent in Europe. And it could easily become the basis of a similar law in England and Wales.
The Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament is currently scrutinising the Bill, and as part of this process it has asked for people to submit their views on it by 24th July. I have asked our Legal Advisory Council to prepare a submission to the Committee, and Andrew Tettenborn, a law professor at Swansea University, has kindly agreed to coordinate our response. As soon as we’ve submitted it, I will publish it on our website. In the meantime, read this piece by Jim Sillars, former deputy leader of the SNP and a member of our Advisory Council, on why the new law will have a chilling effect on free speech.
Submission to the United Nations
Last month, someone drew my attention to the fact that the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of opinion and expression had issued a call for submissions on academic freedom to help him prepare a report for the 75th Session of the General Assembly this autumn. As you know, the FSU is extremely concerned about the state of academic free speech in the UK and this seemed like a good opportunity to draw attention to it in the international arena. With the help of Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, and the FSU’s board of directors, I prepared a report and submitted it to the Special Rapporteur. In due course, it will be published on the website of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but in the meantime you can read it here.
Incidentally, Radomir Tylecote, the FSU’s Research Director, is writing a paper for us on “Non-Crime Hate Incidents”. As you may know, when the police investigate someone accused of a hate crime and conclude that he or she hasn’t done anything of the kind they often record this on the person’s record as a “Non-Crime Hate Incident”. That can show up if a prospective employer carries out an enhanced DBS check, meaning the person might not be able to get a job as a teacher or a carer as a result. This is extremely worrying and something we need to put a stop to if we possibly can – in the past five years, police in England and Wales have investigated 120,000 “Non-Crime Hate Incidents”. Shouldn’t they be policing our streets not our tweets? I will let you know when that paper has been published.
Looking After Our Members
While we’ve been engaged in fighting these important battles we haven’t been neglecting our members.
As you’ll recall, 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 are now worried that if they invite anyone controversial to speak, the Students’ Union will withhold permission. They 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 to that letter here.
You’ll also recall that I wrote to an administrator at De Montfort University in April to complain about his high-handed treatment of one of our members – a journalism student – who’d been put through a disciplinary process for supposedly bringing the University into disrepute. This was after a left-wing activist had lodged a complaint about him following a routine Twitter spat. The University concluded that our member was indeed guilty and threatened him with expulsion if he repeated the offence. This is a clear breach of his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as being contrary to the University’s own free speech policies and inconsistent with its legal duty to uphold free speech under s.43 of Education (Nº 2) Act 1986, as I pointed out in my letter. I asked the administrator to explain himself, and warned him that we will legally challenge any further sanctions that are imposed on our member. You can read that letter here.
Disappointingly, the letter wasn’t even acknowledged, let alone responded to. Consequently I’ve written a follow-up letter, this time to De Montfort’s Vice-Chancellor, copying in the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP. You can read that letter here. I’ll let you know how he responds.
We’ve also taken up the cudgels on behalf of another member, Kellie-Jay Keen, otherwise known as Posie Parker. A well-known gender-critical feminist, Posie had a petition removed by Change.org on the grounds that information contained in it 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 on Change.org 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 took down Posie’s petition and left the other one on its platform where it has attracted nearly 35,000 signatures. I’ve 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, by any stretch of the imagination, “hate speech”. You can read that letter here.
If you feel your speech rights have been violated, don’t hesitate to contact Peter Ainsworth, the FSU’s Case Management Director, whom you can email here.
Promoting the FSU
While I’ve been confined to my home in Acton, I’ve tried to do as many Skype and Zoom interviews as possible about the FSU to make sure people don’t forget about us during this public emergency. You can link to all of these via the Media page of this website, but I particularly enjoyed talking to Meghan Murphy. Meghan is a Canadian feminist who’s been banned from Twitter for daring to challenge trans orthodoxy. You can watch that interview on YouTube here.
A Facebook Lookalike Group
The FSU has attracted more than 3,000 members to date, but if it’s to become the force we want it to be it will need to attract many more. My target is at least 10,000 by the end of the year. To achieve that, I need your help.
One way to advertise a membership organisation like ours is via Facebook. The most effective thing you can do, I’ve been told, is to submit the email addresses of some of our members – in an encrypted or “hashed” form – to the social media company so it can then find amongst its database of people a group that resembles our members in terms of their likes and interests. This is known as a “lookalike group”, the idea being that we can then promote the FSU to the people in this group, and because they share similar interests to those of you who’ve already joined there’s a good chance they’ll join too.
I wouldn’t under any circumstances submit any of your email addresses to Facebook without your consent, but I’d like to create one of these “lookalike groups” nonetheless. Consequently, I’ve created a special link which will lead you to a page where you can consent to your email address being used for this purpose. Be assured, Facebook won’t do anything with your email address other than create this “lookalike group” for us, after which it will delete your email address. It’s a paid service that Facebook offers to organisations like ours and, by all accounts, it’s a good way to recruit new members. I hope you’ll agree.
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, then 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 discounted fee of £25. Unlike all other unions, the Workers of England Union 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.
I hope to have some information about our legal insurance scheme – this one free to all our members – in the next newsletter.
Alas, we haven’t been able to organise any events while the entire country is under virtual house arrest, but we hope to hit the ground running as soon as it becomes possible to do so.
Thanks again for becoming a part of the Free Speech Union. It’s your support that makes all of this activity in defence of free speech possible.