Holding their feet to the fire

This is our second 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 log in details were sent to you when you first signed up.)

The Free Speech Union now has six members of staff, including me. You can see who we are and what we do by clicking here and scrolling down to the “Company Staff” section. We’re all working part-time and we don’t have an office or any office overheads – which is just as well, given that we wouldn’t be able to go to the office even if we had one. Incredibly, the Government doesn’t regard free speech activists as “key workers”.

Silencing Doctors in Wuhan

That’s not at all incredible, obviously. Defending free speech isn’t considered a priority during the coronavirus crisis when people’s lives are at risk, but when it’s over and the post-mortem begins there will be an important story to tell about how the suppression of free speech by the Chinese authorities led to the pandemic. After all, if the doctors who first raised the alarm in Wuhan had been allowed to air their concerns in public, as opposed to being arrested and forced to confess to “spreading rumours” and “making untrue comments”, the outbreak could have been nipped in the bud. Researchers at Southampton University have concluded that if the Chinese authorities had introduced a range of interventions (early detection, case isolation and travel restrictions) three weeks earlier than it did, cases would have been reduced by 95%. In this instance, the suppression of free speech has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – possibly millions – as well as catastrophic damage to the global economy. You can be sure the Free Speech Union will underline this connection when the crisis is over.

No-Platforming at Oxford

In spite of the lockdown, we’ve been pretty busy over the past month. As you’ll recall, we lodged two complaints with Oxford University: one about the no-platforming of Professor Selina Todd on 29th February, the other about the no-platforming of Amber Rudd on 5th March. We’ve now heard back from the relevant authorities and I’m happy to say the responses in both cases have been positive.

Exeter College, where Professor Todd was no-platformed, set up a Complaint Panel made up of Fellows of the College to investigate the FSU’s complaint and concluded that Professor Todd’s freedom of speech had indeed been infringed. The Panel has asked the College to conduct an urgent review of its procedures with respect to third-party bookings so as to minimise the risk of something like this happening again. You can read the reply to the FSU from Professor Sir Rick Trainor, Rector of Exeter, as well as my response here.

In the case of Amber Rudd, and following the FSU’s complaint, the Oxford University Proctors de-registered the student society that no-platformed her and directed it to issue an apology. You can read my response to the letter from the Proctors setting out these sanctions here, and a news story about the episode in the Mail on Sunday here. Incidentally, the Mail on Sunday ran another story on 12th April based on emails it obtained via a Freedom of Information request. The emails reveal that Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, Louise 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.

The Mail on Sunday, 12th April 2020.

My favourite passage in that story reads: “The emails also highlight staff concern at the involvement of the journalist Toby Young and his pressure group the Free Speech Union, noting that he had a ‘detailed understanding’ of laws and procedures.” In truth, the “detailed understanding” I’ve been relying on hasn’t been mine, but that of the members of the FSU’s Legal Advisory Council, all of whom have been advising the FSU on a pro bono basis. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them.

Requests for Help

Those same lawyers have also been advising the FSU about how best to respond to the requests for help that have been coming in from our members. (Incidentally, we’ve appointed a Case Management Director in the form of Peter Ainsworth, an experienced businessman, who you can contact here if you need our help.) One of these requests came from a student of journalism at De Montfort University in Leicester who was investigated and threatened with expulsion by the University after a left-wing activist that he’d got into a spat with on Twitter lodged a complaint. I have written to the official who carried out the investigation pointing out that this is a clear breach of the student’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as 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. I have warned him that we will legally challenge any further sanctions that are imposed on our member. For a university to punish a journalism student for exercising his lawful right to free speech really is scandalous. You can read the letter here.

We were also notified by a couple of our members that their attempt to set up a free speech society at Sheffield University was being obstructed by Sheffield’s Students’ Union. When they applied to register the society with the Students’ Union they were refused, but they appealed and the decision was overturned. Then, they were told by the Students’ Union that they had been designated a “red risk”, which means they 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”. I have written to the President of the Students’ Union, 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 that letter here.

We’ve also intervened to help out two other student members. One was being investigated for “inappropriate” tweets, the other was being bullied and threatened by hard-left activists on his university campus; but those matters must remain confidential at the request of the students concerned.

Workers of England

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 have negotiated a deal with the WEU to represent our members immediately if you already have a problem for a discounted fee of £25 for members of the FSU if you sign up with them. Unlike all other unions, the Workers of England Union will go into 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.

Members’ Q&A

We hoped to organise the FSU’s first public debate on 28th April at the Royal Geographical Society in London, but we’ve had to put that on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, we’ve organised a live Q&A for members only. From now until 5pm on Friday 17th April you can post your questions and upvote or downvote other members’ questions here. (You may be prompted to log in first.) Then, starting at 5pm on Friday, I’ll work my way down the list for sixty minutes, starting with those that have the most upvotes. I’ll leave my answers up there for a few days in case you can’t make the 5–6pm slot.

One question that some of you will have is, “Where’s my membership card?” After some deliberation, we’ve decided not to issue membership cards. Rather, we’re going to be sending you an FSU lapel pin instead. This isn’t to save money, since they cost about the same – we just thought our members would prefer lapel pins. We’re in the process of putting together the welcome pack, which we hope to get to you soon (complete with lapel pin). Sorry it’s taken so long!

Thanks again for becoming a part of the Free Speech Union. It’s your generous support that has made all of our activity in defence of free speech possible.

Kind regards,

Toby Young