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.
The Free Speech Crisis
Whenever I’ve sounded the alarm about the free speech crisis I’ve often been pooh-poohed with the argument that it’s just a figment of the imagination of male, pale and stale conservatives. What we think of as a “crisis” is just a long overdue rebalancing, with privileged white men having to share the public stage with representatives of marginalised and historically disadvantaged groups. So it was helpful to see a group of predominantly left-wing writers and intellectuals, many of them people of colour, write a joint letter to an American magazine warning about the dangers of cancel culture. The letter in Harper’s, which you can read here, was signed by JK Rowling, Sir Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem, among others. I wrote about the letter in my column in Spectator USA.
Another argument that’s often used to debunk the concept of cancel culture is that there aren’t that many examples of people being cancelled, particularly in universities. Consequently, it was useful to see this report from Policy Exchange, based on an extensive survey, that laid bare the extent of the problem. The authors of the report, two of whom are members of the FSU’s Advisory Council, commissioned a YouGov poll involving a randomly-collected sample of more than 800 professors and lecturers – some working, some retired – who represented the 217,000 academic staff in British universities.
The authors’ findings won’t surprise anyone familiar with Britain’s higher education sector. For instance, 75% of UK academics voted for left-of-centre parties in the 2017 and 2019 elections, compared with less than 20% who voted for right-of-centre parties. Just over half said they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch, while only 37% said they would risk sharing a table with a dissenter from trans orthodoxy. Among the tiny minority of academics who identify as “right” or “fairly right”, 32% said they refrained from airing their views in front of colleagues for fear of negative repercussions for their careers.
Having identified the problem, the authors propose a solution: an Academic Freedom Bill. This would create a Director for Academic Freedom as a member of the senior team at the Office for Students, the English universities’ regulator, who would report directly to the Board and be appointed by the Education Secretary. His or her role would be to ensure higher education providers honour their professed commitment to free speech. The Bill would also include measures to strengthen this commitment, by stipulating that universities have a direct duty to protect academic freedom and that if they breach it they would be liable for damages. In addition, the Bill would make it explicit in law that higher-education providers can’t invoke their public sector equality duty or the harassment provisions of the Equality Act 2010 to disregard their obligation to uphold free speech.
That last point is important since the Equality Act is often cited by administrators as something that has to be ‘balanced’ against academic freedom. For example, Stephen Toope, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, referred to the need to ensure Muslim students didn’t “feel personally attacked” when defending the Divinity Faculty’s decision to rescind its offer of a Visiting Fellowship to Jordan Peterson after a photograph emerged of him standing next to a fan wearing a “I’m a proud Islamophobe” T-shirt. The fact that Professor Toope condemned Dr Peterson, but recently defended Dr Priamvada Gopal, the Cambridge academic who tweeted “white lives don’t matter”, came as a bit of a surprise and I wrote to him asking him to explain this double standard. So far, he has yet to reply.
You can read an article about the Policy Exchange report by Nigel Biggar, the Chairman of the FSU’s Board of Directors, here and listen to me discussing the report with Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkRadio here.
The Scottish Hate Crimes Bill
Since the FSU submitted its evidence on the Scottish Hate Crimes Bill to the Scottish Parliament last month, the campaign to stop this draconian new anti-free speech law has gathered momentum. This week, a coalition of artists, authors, journalists and campaigners wrote a joint open letter calling for the Scottish Government to reconsider the Bill. Published by the Humanist Society Scotland, it was signed by 20 people, including Rowan Atkinson, Peter Tatchell, Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, AC Grayling and Prof Timothy Garton Ash, as well as Index on Censorship, Scottish PEN and Cartoonists Rights Network International. It looks as though the message has finally got through to Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s Justice Secretary who has been tasked with getting the Bill through. On Wednesday, he announced he was preparing to make changes following the chorus of objections. “This letter from various artists will be given serious consideration,” he said. “Their key concern seems to be that ‘stirring up’ offences should be restricted to intent only. It is an area of the Bill I will reflect further on.”
The aspect of the Bill Yousaf is referring to is the proposal to enlarge the offence of “stirring up hatred” without the need to prove intent to secure a conviction. It is already an offence under Scottish law to stir up racial hatred, but the proposed 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. It is that last clause that Yousef has said he’ll look at again. If that’s removed, it will certainly make the law less draconian, but he would do better to scrap the Bill altogether.
The UK is suffering from its worst recession since records began, with GDP having shrunk by 22% in the first half of the year. But one sector of the economy is thriving: diversity training. In the United States, this is already an $8 billion-a-year industry and it’s growing quickly in the UK. No doubt some diversity training courses are well-designed and politically neutral, but many are not. They often begin with a version of the Implicit Association Test, a tool for detecting “unconscious bias” that’s been widely discredited, and take it for granted that the only explanation for outcome discrepancies between different identity groups is systemic oppression. In other words, if you suffer from “unconscious bias”, you’re part of the problem. Members of historically advantaged groups, such as heterosexual white males, are then encouraged to “check” their “privilege” and that can involve reading books such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Anyone challenging the assumptions of the diversity training team, or expressing scepticism about the recommended reading list, is liable to get into trouble, up to and including dismissal. Indeed, several of the members we’ve been helping out in the last month or so have run afoul of this new orthodoxy.
We’ve been doing some work with our legal advisers to find out whether this kind of training is contrary to the Equality Act 2010, particularly where it requires people to denounce members of a particular ethnic group (i.e. white people), and whether employees can opt out of it without being penalised. We intend to publish some guidance on the website soon, but if you have a question please contact us on [email protected] as we may be able to help.
Under the law, a person’s “religious or philosophical beliefs” are protected, making it unlawful for their employer to discriminate against them on those grounds, but some beliefs are “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” according to a recent judgment in the Employment Tribunal, so it’s not clear cut. Rather worryingly, that was the judge’s verdict when Maya Forstator brought a discrimination case against her employer after she lost her job for expressing the view that men cannot change into women. Maya is appealing that verdict and the Free Speech Union has applied to intervene in that appeal. If we get permission, our lawyers will be able to make an argument as to why gender critical views, as well as other unfashionable beliefs, are worthy of respect in a democratic society. If we can persuade the court that a broad range of beliefs should be protected, that will make it harder for companies to penalise employees for dissenting from the latest fashionable orthodoxy.
The FSU is now involved in a number of legal cases. In addition to our Judicial Review of Ofcom and the Maya Forstator case, we’re also going to apply for permission to intervene in the case of Harry Miller v. College of Policing. In February, Harry won a partial victory in the High Court when a judge ruled that Humberside Police’s investigation of his politically incorrect tweets was unlawful. (You can see a video of Harry talking about this victory at the FSU’s launch party here.) Unfortunately, the judge also ruled that the recording of Harry’s tweets as a “non-crime hate incident”, in keeping with the official guidance issued by the College of Policing, was perfectly legal and Harry has been given permission to challenge that verdict in the Court of Appeal. The issue is that if Harry was to apply for a job as a teacher or a carer and his prospective employer carried out an enhanced DBS check, whereby they asked the police whether he has a criminal record, the fact that he’d committed a “non-crime hate incident” would be passed on to them and he probably wouldn’t get the job. Like Harry, we don’t think that’s right, not least because it has a chilling effect on free speech, and we would like to make that argument in the Court of Appeal.
To help us pursue these cases, as well as stand up for the speech rights of our members in the courts, we will shortly create a Legal Department within the FSU. Thanks to a generous donation, as well as your membership dues, we are now in a position to employ a full-time Legal Director as well as a full-time Legal Officer and will be recruiting for those positions later this month.
The FSU now has 5,400 members, which is pretty remarkable considering it was only set up in February. If we continue to grow at the current rate, we should exceed our target of 10,000 members by the end of the year. Earlier this week we sent out the latest batch of welcome packs, along with the FSU lapel pins, so most of you should have received them by now. However, there will be a handful of members who haven’t got those items yet. You should receive them when we send out the next batch in about four weeks.
Once again, I can only apologise that we haven’t organised any events for our members yet. We had a number of things planned, but we’ve had to put them on hold while the coronavirus restrictions remain in place. Hopefully, they’ll be lifted soon and we can get back to organising some speakeasies and debates. In the meantime, you can keep abreast of the activities of the FSU’s Directors in the Media section of our website.
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, 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 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. It’s your support that makes all our activities possible.