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.
Unconscious Bias Victory
After the intervention of the FSU, Somerville College, Oxford reversed a policy requiring students to score 100% on a test following a mandatory unconscious bias training course which, among other things, would have required them to affirm that they’d found the course beneficial. A student at Somerville, and a member of the FSU, asked for our help and I wrote to the College’s Principal Baroness Royall of Blaisdon saying “the relationship between conscious and unconscious bias, and the impact of unconscious bias training on a person’s real world behaviour, are subjects of an ongoing academic debate and if the college values academic freedom it should not insist all students take one side in this debate”. Baroness Royall responded by dropping the insistence that all students would have to achieve a perfect score in the course assessment. “This is an area where I should have thought further,” she wrote, “and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.”
You can read my letter to Lady Royall, as well as her response and my follow-up letter, here.
Successful Appeal to Facebook’s New Oversight Board
Facebook has issued an apology to one of our Founder Members after the Free Speech Union helped to assemble a powerful coalition of MPs and peers to object to the company’s censorship of a well-known journalist and vocal critic of the SNP.
The parliamentarians, who included the Chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, former chancellor Lord Lamont and former Labour MP Kate Hoey, wrote to Sir Nick Clegg the Vice-President of Facebook and Chair of its Oversight Board, criticising the decision to ban attempts by Brian Monteith, a former member of the Scottish Parliament, to advertise articles on Facebook published by his conservative think tank.
In an open letter to the former Deputy Prime Minister, the MPs and peers claimed that Monteith had been the victim of “vexatious, politically motivated complaints by SNP activists”, saying that “articles that are critical of Scotland’s SNP Government receive a torrent of abuse from independence supporters…”
In the letter, which the Free Speech Union pulled together, the parliamentarians pointed out that the reason given for the ban was that the articles breached Facebook’s “Vaccine Discourager” policy. Yet of the articles that triggered the ban: “one was on the similarities between Nicola Sturgeon and Nicolai Ceausescu, the second was about how more devolution would not appease the SNP, and the third was on lockdown policy – none of the articles included the word ‘vaccine’.”
On receipt of the letter, Facebook immediately lifted the ban and apologised to Brian Monteith, as reported in the Times.
Exeter University Lifts Ban on External Speakers after FSU’s Intervention
Exeter’s students’ union wrote to all student societies at the end of January ordering them to cancel any events involving external speakers. This followed complaints after FSU Advisory Council members Claire Fox and Joanna Williams had participated in a debate at the university, proposing the motion: “This house regrets the rise of the snowflake generation.” Before they spoke, the President of the debating society produced a list of “resources that you could turn to” if students were traumatised by the debate. On 25th January, the Exeter Socialist Students posted a statement online condemning the debating society for hosting Claire and Joanna, accusing them of being “transphobic”, and saying the students who run the society “do not adequately vet their speakers and appear unable to run their society safely”, and, two days later, the students’ union wrote to the debating society and demanded they cancel all future debates until they could put more robust risk assessment protocols in place.
The FSU wrote to the Vice Chancellor Professor Lisa Roberts to remind her of the university’s statutory duty to uphold free speech. She initially fobbed us off, but when we pushed back she told us that the ban on external speakers would be lifted. You can read the exchange of letters on the FSU website and a write-up of what happened on the Guido Fawkes website.
Launch of Free Speech Champions
The Free Speech Champions – a joint initiative of the FSU and the Battle of Ideas charity – held a successful launch event on 19th February, featuring a number of speakers, including founder Inaya Folarin Iman, Greg Lukianoff the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Cambridge philosopher Dr Arif Ahmed. Their remarks were followed by a lively question and answer session with nearly 300 guests, including several of the Champions. The event can be viewed on YouTube here and donations to the new initiative can be made here.
Chicago Professor who Survived Cancellation Attempt Thanks FSU
Last year, we asked members to sign an FSU petition urging the President of Chicago University to issue a statement reaffirming his commitment to the Chicago Principles (the gold standard of university free speech policies). This was because an outrage mob were gunning for Dorian Abbott, a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences, who’d committed the sin of criticising positive discrimination. Three days after we started that petition, the University President did exactly what we asked and the mob quickly dispersed. Prof Abbott has written an article about his experience for Quillette in which he thanks us for the support: “Fortunately, at a crucial juncture in the proceedings, the Free Speech Union launched a change.org petition in my support, which was signed by more than 13,000 people. … My university president, Robert Zimmer, subsequently issued a strong statement defending freedom of expression on campus. As a result, I seem to have survived my cancellation.”
The US FSU, which will be officially launched later this year, has taken action in the case of artist Emma Quintana, whose installation at the University of Tampa, entitled White America: Supremacy, Nationalism and Patriotism, was dismantled and rearranged by a group of offended students. Ms Quintana is a professor at Tampa. The American FSU’s CEO Designate Ben Schwartz and I wrote to the President of the University Ronald L. Vaughn praising Jocelyn Boigenzahn, the director of the university’s art galleries, for standing by the artist, and expressed the hope that the controversy would not affect Professor Quintana’s employment status.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the US FSU – or getting involved – you can email the new organisation here.
Fans Who Boo Players Taking the Knee Should Not be Banned
The FSU has written a letter to the Football Association arguing that fans must be allowed to boo players who take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter. “From a free speech point of view, it cannot be fair or reasonable that people on the pitch are allowed to express their political views, but those in the stands are not,” I wrote. (The Daily Mail covered the letter in its sports pages.) We followed up by writing to the Premier League and the English Football League making the same argument.
Academic Free Speech Bill
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last month that the Government plans to appoint a “Free Speech Champion” to the board of the Office for Students to ensure free speech and academic freedom are protected on university campuses. This will be one element in a new academic free speech bill that’s likely to be included in the next Queen’s Speech. The bill, which aims to strengthen free speech protections in English universities, comes after a report put out by the think tank Policy Exchange last year that, among other things, called for the creation of the new post. For the first time, student unions will have a legal requirement to uphold free speech and students and academics who are penalised for exercising their lawful right to free speech will have a new legal route to claim compensation.
Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and a member of the FSU’s Advisory Council, is a founding member of a secretive “group of rebel academics” set up to push back against the growing woke illiberalism in universities. In an article for the Mail, he welcomed these proposals. “There is a long list of academics in Britain’s universities who have found themselves marginalised or intimidated by fellow academics, administrators or students,” he wrote.
Nigel Biggar, FSU Chair and Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, also welcomed the news, saying: “As British society has become more polarised, the civic vocation of universities to train graduate citizens in the virtues and art of handling controversial ideas civilly has never been more important. The government’s plans promise to inject some energy into that culturally vital role.”
The Telegraph interviewed several students who have been persecuted for exercising their free speech on campus, including FSU member Thomas Inns, who was suspended from the Students’ Union at Falmouth University for sending a sarcastic email. He sought the FSU’s help and was ultimately exonerated. He said the ordeal was “emblematic of the desire [at universities across the country] not to see anybody offended. Basically it’s trying to protect students from real life”.
Merseyside Police Think Being Offensive is an Offence
The FSU has written to Merseyside Police after they promoting a billboard that read “being offensive is an offence” as part of an effort “to encourage people to report hate crime”. After a tsunami of protest, Superintendent Martin Earl clarified that “‘being offensive’ is not in itself an offence”, but there are still several unanswered questions. “It’s deeply alarming that Merseyside Police have such a poor grasp of the law,” I wrote in the letter to the Chief Constable. “As Lord Justice Sedley said in a landmark case in 1999, ‘Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’”
I asked the Chief Constable for assurance that Merseyside Police have not interviewed or arrested anyone for this imaginary crime.
Launch Party For Andrew Doyle’s Book on 2nd March
Dr Andrew Doyle, a member of the FSU’s Advisory Council and the creator of Titania McGrath, has written a book called Free Speech and Why It Matters. The online launch party is on March 2nd and anyone can attend. Just apply for a ticket from EventBrite.