Monthly Newsletter

The Inexorable Rise of Cancel Culture

March has been a bad month for free speech. The Scottish Parliament passed a new censorious hate crime law, whose shortcomings we drew attention to in this submission to the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament last year and which the Law Commission of England and Wales would like to see replicated in Westminster. Numerous public figures got cancelled, including three people who had the temerity to challenge Meghan Markle’s claims about the Royal Family and the British media in her Oprah Winfrey interview. Piers Morgan lost his job on Good Morning Britain after he refused to apologise for saying he didn’t believe a word she said – something we complained about in a letter to the CEO of ITV. Ian Murray was forced to resign as executive director of the Society of Editors after issuing a statement headlined: “UK media not bigoted.” And Sharon Osbourne was axed from an American chat show after telling her co-presenter she doesn’t think Piers Morgan is a racist just because he doesn’t like Meghan.

And that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. March also saw the cancellation of children’s author Dr Seuss, the banjo player for Mumford and Sons (for praising a book by a centre-right journalist), Gordon Beattie, the founder of PR company Beattie Communications, James Moore, an employee of NHS Wales, Keith Hann, director of corporate affairs at Iceland (for making disparaging remarks about the Welsh language), Alexi McCammond, the 27 year-old editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, who was forced to step down when faintly inappropriate tweets she’d written as a 17-year-old came to light, and Elizabeth Heverin, a 19 year-old student at Aberdeen University who was banned from her students union after saying the words “Rule Britannia”. No wonder Nobel laureate Sir Kazuo Ishiguro told journalists he was concerned for the next generation of writers who will have to self-censor in case an “anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”.

The Free Speech Union is One Year Old

Trevor Phillips speaks at the FSU’s launch party a year ago

The launch party for the Free Speech Union took place on 26th February last year, making the FSU almost exactly a year old. In its first year, the FSU has helped hundreds of members push back against efforts to punish them for exercising their lawful right to free speech, including bus drivers, social workers, council employees, civil servants, police officers, fire fighters, gender-critical feminists, students, teachers and academics. It has also published several briefing documents, submitted responses to numerous consultations and organised a couple of comedy nights in the brief window when we were allowed out of our homes last year. We’ve now got 12 employees, nearly 8,000 members, and are talking to free speech activists all over the world about opening overseas branches. I don’t think it could have gone much better.

This month, I’m delighted to report on a string of victories.

Inaya Folarin Iman Launches the Free Speech Champions

Inaya Folarin Iman

Inaya Folarin Iman, a Founding Director of the Free Speech Union, is launching a new venture today called the Free Speech Champions Project, along with a group of students and recent graduates. (The Mail on Sunday ran a story about it yesterday.) Below is an extract from the press release.

The Free Speech Champions Project is an exciting new initiative which aims to inspire the next generation about the importance of free speech. It has been set up by a socially and politically diverse group of university students and recent graduates to create a space for challenging thinking. It will do this by creating a network of young ‘free speech champions’ across the country who will host events on free speech, support and encourage the development of free speech societies, and develop the information, ideas and arguments about free speech needed to inspire the next generation. The Champions will collaborate with individuals, groups and organisations who share their commitment to free speech.

The Free Speech Champions Project is led by Inaya Folarin Iman, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Leeds, and developed in collaboration with the Free Speech Union and the Battle of Ideas charity.

Inaya said: “Freedom of speech is essential for open enquiry to flourish. Social and human progress depends on courageous individuals who are prepared to think for themselves. Too often, the places where free speech should be valued most highly – universities and online spaces – are where it is in most jeopardy. We need to re-articulate why free speech matters, especially to young people.”

A 2020 survey carried out by ADF International revealed that 40% of students self-censor out of concern for their future careers.

Inaya said: “A lot of attention has been paid to the problem of explicit censorship on campus – no-platforming of speakers, the closing down of debates. It is a good sign that a lot of people instinctively feel that this is wrong. However, a more subtle pressure to self-censor has also become far too prevalent in places of education. This is not about being ‘polite’. Too many young people are holding themselves back from exploring ideas because they fear the potentially negative consequences of using the wrong words or of honestly sharing what is on their minds.”

The Free Speech Champions Project will go to where young people most need the space to think and speak freely – schools, universities and online communities – and inspire support for freedom of speech.

Toby Young, the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, said: “The Free Speech Union is delighted to be supporting this project, along with the Battle of Ideas charity. If free speech is going to endure it’s essential that young people understand why it matters and needs to be defended.”

You can find out more about the Free Speech Champions Project by visiting its website. And if you’re a student or recent graduate who would like to get involved, please fill out the form on this page.

Fighting Back in 2020

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.

Another Triumph for the Free Speech Union

Professor Dorian Abbot

The Free Speech Union can chalk up another victory.

Last week, 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 to YouTube expressing his reservations about the way Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have been discussed and implemented on campus.

In these videos – since taken down – Prof Abbot raised several misgivings about DEI efforts and expressed concern that a climate of fear is “making it extremely difficult for people with dissenting viewpoints to voice their opinions”. The slides for each of Prof Abbot’s videos can be found here, and his own account of events and his opinions can be found here. Nowhere in these materials does Prof Abbot offer any opinion that a reasonable person would consider to be hateful or otherwise offensive.

Shortly after uploading the videos, Abbot’s concerns were confirmed when 58 students and postdocs of the Department of Geophysical Sciences, and 71 other graduate students and postdocs from other University of Chicago departments, posted a letter saying that Prof Abbot’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 serve to ostracise and shame Prof Abbot, while stripping him of departmental titles, courses, and privileges.

Another Victory for the Free Speech Union

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’s no reason to investigate Darren. Are journalists now going to be held criminally responsible if the people they interview say something potentially unlawful? On 2nd February, I appeared on Good Morning Britain to debate Kehinde Andrews, a Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham University. In the course of that debate, he said “the British Empire did more harm than the Nazis” and whiteness was a form of “psychosis”. Are the Metropolitan Police now going to arrest Piers Morgan for interviewing Professor Andrews on the grounds that his remarks could have stirred up hatred against white people?

Luckily, Darren is a member of the Free Speech Union so I was able to find him a top criminal solicitor in the form of Luke Gittos. 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.

Three Petitions

Apologies for the irregular form of this mini-newsletter, but I wanted to alert you to three petitions in defence of free speech.

The first is a petition expressing support for Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State, who has been cancelled for the second time in three years. In 2017, the editors of Third World Quarterly, an academic journal, started getting death threats after publishing an essay by Professor Gilley called “The Case For Colonialism” and promptly deleted it from their website. Now, the same thing’s happened again. He has written a book about Sir Alan Burns, a post-war colonial governor who argued that Britain was decolonising too quickly, that was due to be published by Rowman & Littlefield this month. However, the publishers have now decided not to go ahead after a petition objecting to the book was started by Joshua Moufawad-Paul, a self-described “Maoist”. Even though the petition hasn’t even managed to scrape up 1,000 signatures, it was too much for the panty-waists at Rowman & Littlefield. Professor Gilley has written about the episode for the Wall St Journal. Please sign the petition to show your solidarity with him.

The second is a petition in support of Mark Crispin Miller, a professor in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, who got into trouble for urging his students to review all the scientific studies on the effectiveness of wearing masks, including those suggesting they’re ineffective that Google has shadow-banned. This was for a class he teaches on propaganda. One of his students made a flurry of complaints, claiming he was endangering public health, and as a result the university has asked him not to teach his propaganda class next term. Please sign this petition to express your support for academic freedom.

Finally, a petition has been started urging The Hist, a society at Trinity College, Dublin, to reissue its invitation to the biologist Richard Dawkins after he was no-platformed last month. The College Historical Society – known as the Hist – recently disinvited Professor Richard Dawkins on the grounds that things he’d said on Twitter about Islam and sexual assault would make the members feel uncomfortable. I wrote a letter to the head of the Hist on 30th September, urging her to honour the original invitation, but so far she hasn’t replied. Please sign this petition, which makes the same request.

Kind regards,

Signature: Toby Young

Toby Young

Unconscious Bias Training: Social Lubricant or Snake Oil?

Many of our members have asked us what to do if they find themselves at odds with their employers about how best to tackle prejudice and discrimination in the workplace. As I’m sure most of you will be aware, employers, as well as schools and universities, have introduced a raft of new “anti-racism” initiatives in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, from circulating suggested reading lists (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) to introducing mandatory unconscious bias training. Is your company or university legally entitled to put your through a disciplinary process for expressing reservations about these initiatives – circulating an alternative reading list that includes Douglas Murray’s Madness of Crowds, for instance – or for refusing to undergo diversity training? Is there a way of expressing your reservations about these initiatives that means your employer cannot legally punish you for doing so? What are the legal limits on what an employer can do to force you to assent to the “woke” orthodoxy on this issue?

Because we were getting so many questions along those lines, and dealing with so many cases of people who are being punished for dissenting from the BLM narrative, we thought it would be helpful to publish some Frequently Asked Questions on this topic. You can read them here. These will be the first in a series of FAQs we intend to publish, with the next set being about the social media policies of companies and universities and what the law says about how far they can legitimately restrict what you can say on social media, even when you make it clear you’re speaking in a purely private capacity. If you have any suggestions about other topics we should cover, please email me here.

The Counter-Revolution

Nick Buckley was dismissed by the trustees of Mancunian Way, a ground-breaking charity he founded nine years ago, after an online mob accused him of “inappropriate” and “insensitive” views and demanded his removal. With the help of the FSU, he got his job back.

Cancel culture got a turbo boost from the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, but there have been some encouraging signs of a fightback in the past few weeks. A group of comedians, writers and academics from across the political spectrum, including several members of our Advisory Council, started the Don’t Divide Us campaign, which rejects race-obsessed identity politics and calls for a fact-based investigation into the roots of Britain’s social problems. In addition, Inaya Folarin Iman, one of the Directors of the Free Speech Union, has launched the Equiano Project which promotes freedom of speech on issues of race, culture and politics. The new group is named after Olaudah Equiano, a slave who bought his freedom in 1766 and became part of the British abolitionist movement.

But perhaps the most positive sign was the FSU’s successful campaign to get Nick Buckley his old job back. Nick, a member of the FSU, was fired as the Chief Executive of an award-winning charity called Mancunian Way after writing a critical blog post about the Black Lives Matter manifesto in June. A mob quickly formed up on social media demanding he lose his job and the trustees duly capitulated in spite of the fact that Nick had founded the charity. We started a counter-petition which got over 17,500 signatures and found him a top lawyer in the form of Keystone Law’s Geoffrey Davies, an expert in charity law. Geoffrey discovered the trustees hadn’t followed the correct procedure in their haste to get rid of Nick and when this was pointed out to them they agreed to resign. They were then replaced by a new group of trustees who immediately reappointed Nick as Chief Exec. It was a satisfying conclusion to an unpleasant episode – cancel culture at its worst. Nick set up the charity to help disadvantaged young people in Manchester and was awarded an MBE last year in recognition of his work. He didn’t deserve to be treated in this way and I’m glad the FSU was able to see justice done. You can read an account of the FSU’s role in getting Nick his job back on the Guido Fawkes website here, a larger piece about the whole affair in the Mail here, and an interview we did with Nick on YouTube here.

Victims of the Cultural Revolution

Apologies for not having written this newsletter sooner. I feel particularly remiss because more than 1,000 new members have joined since the last newsletter and those people won’t have received any communication from the Free Speech Union until now, save for a pro forma acknowledgement. Let me take this opportunity to apologise to those new members and assure them that their welcome packs and FSU lapel pins will be arriving soon.

The reason I haven’t been able to write to you before now is because the FSU has been absolutely deluged with cries for help in the past four weeks. It’s open season on mavericks and dissenters at the moment. If you publicly challenge any of the sacred nostrums of the woke left and you work in a school, a college, a university, an arts company, a public broadcasting organisation, a tech company, a charity, a local authority or, indeed, Whitehall, you are at risk of being cancelled. In the past month we’ve been contacted by people in all of these fields who have either been fired, suspended or who are “under investigation” for having said or done something controversial, usually on social media.

And by “controversial” I don’t mean they’re guilty of hate speech. One person who asked for our help was Mike McCulloch, a maths lecturer at Plymouth University, who was being investigated by his employer for having liked a tweet saying “All Lives Matter”. Then again, the definition of “hate speech” is so nebulous and broad that it’s increasingly common for mainstream views to be labelled as such. For instance, another FSU member, the feminist campaigner Posie Parker, started a petition on Change.org asking the Oxford English Dictionary to keep its definition of “woman” as “adult female human”, and the moderators took it down on the grounds that it was “hate speech”. JK Rowling knows all about that, of course. In addition to helping Posie, we’re also helping a best-selling children’s author called Gillian Philip who was sacked by her publisher after adding the hashtag #IStandWithJKRowling to her Twitter account. And we’ve written to the editor of the Morning Star on behalf of another of our members, the cartoonist Stella Perrett, who was cancelled by the communist newspaper. Her sin was to draw a gender-critical cartoon (see below) which the Morning Star published and which then caused outrage among trans “allies” who demanded she be thrown under a bus. The editor, Ben Chacko, duly obliged, publishing a grovelling apology in which he compared the cartoon to a “transphobic hate crime”.