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”.
But what made March a truly terrible month were the protests that erupted outside Batley Grammar School last week after word got out that a Religious Education teacher had shown his pupils one of the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. This was the same sin that led to the brutal murder of another teacher – Samuel Paty – by an Islamist terrorist in a suburb of Paris last year. Instead of standing up for the RE teacher’s right to free speech, the head of Batley Grammar issued a grovelling apology, described the cartoons as “completely inappropriate” and suspended him. Blasphemy hasn’t been a crime in England and Wales since 2008 and section 5 of the Public Order Act which outlawed “insulting words and behaviour” was repealed in 2013, yet the headteacher appears to think that Muslims in his local community have the right to veto anything taught in the school that they find offensive.
We wrote three letters in response to this outrage: one to the headteacher, demanding the reinstatement of the teacher; one to the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, asking him to provide the teacher with round-the-clock police protection; and one to the Charity Commission to complain about the Purpose of Life, a Muslim charity which named the teacher in a letter to the school and then published that letter on Twitter, thereby endangering his life. (The Telegraph reported that the Charity Commission has already followed up on our complaint.) You can read all three letters here.
In addition, we wrote to Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, suggesting he amend the Department for Education’s official guidance on the promotion of British values in schools so it includes a duty to promote free speech. You can read that letter here.
One of the few glimmers of light in this whole sorry affair is the fact that the pupils of the teacher at the centre of the row have started a petition on Change.org asking for him to be reinstated – a petition that now has more than 50,000 signatures. You can sign that petition here.
The FSU’s 10-Point Manifesto
In the run-up to the local elections in May, the FSU has published a manifesto, arguing for 10 changes to the law to strengthen protections for free speech. Here’s point number three, dealing with the protection of free speech in the workplace:
In order to protect the speech rights of employees, there needs to be a specific legislative protection against their penalisation for lawful political or social opinion expressed in a private capacity. This means workers should be protected for what they say: (a) in a purely private capacity, whether in person or on social media; (b) when what they’ve said does not refer to their employer, the business their employer is engaged in, or to other employees; and (c) the employer cannot prove that the expression of the opinion directly and substantially affects the employer’s business or the employee’s ability to carry out his or her job. Contracts of employment that try to restrict this protection should be legally unenforceable and if an employer wants to punish an employee for saying something lawful the burden should fall on them to prove the employee isn’t deserving of the above protections.
You can read the manifesto here.
Non-Crime Hate Incidents
Point one of the manifesto asks the Government to scrap Non-Crime Hate Incidents (NCHIs), which can be recorded against a person’s name whenever that person is accused of having done something motivated by hatred, particularly if the “victim” is a member of a “protected” group, but is judged not to have committed a crime. As a result, people’s names are being included on the police’s national database, often without their knowledge, when the police know they haven’t committed a crime. In the five years between 2014 and 2019, 120,000 NCHIs were investigated and recorded in England and Wales.
Dr Radomir Tylecote, the FSU’s Research Director, has written a paper about NCHIs, setting out the case against in detail. The really pernicious thing about them is that after they’ve been recorded against someone’s name – often without their knowledge – they then show up on that person’s police record if a prospective employer does an enhanced DBS check.
And if you thought 120,000 in five years is a lot – that’s an average of 66 people a day being investigated by the police for what amounts to thought crime – you ain’t seen nothing yet. On March 17th, the Government accepted a House of Lords amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that will require the police in England and Wales to record crimes of violence motivated by a person’s sex or gender. You can bet your bottom dollar that means the police will enlarge the definition of NCHIs to include incidents in which someone is accused of committing a “misogynistic” hate crime, recording that accusation against their names even if no crime has been committed. (You can watch Claire Fox, Emma Webb and me discussing the implications of this amendment with the New Culture Forum’s Peter Whittle here.)
Our best hope of scrapping NCHIs currently rests with Harry Miller, who appeared in the Court of Appeal earlier this month to argue that the recording of NCHIs is unlawful. If he’s successful, that will mean NCHIs are no longer included on people’s police records, but if he’s unsuccessful he will have to pay not only his own costs but those of the other side, too – in this case the College of Policing, a quango that instructed police officers to record NCHIs in guidance issued in 2014. The FSU is supporting Harry’s appeal and has agreed to use the money in its GoFundMe litigation fund to help pay his costs should he lose. So please do make a donation to that fund if you can afford it. If Harry is successful, we’ll use the money to fight other important free speech cases.
Professor Gregory Clark
The FSU has pulled together a letter, signed by over 100 senior academics, objecting to the cancellation of a seminar by Professor Gregory Clark at Glasgow University’s Adam Smith Business School. The seminar, entitled “For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls: a lineage of 400,000 individuals 1750-2020 shows genetics determines most social outcomes”, was due to be given in February, but was “postponed” after more than 100 Glasgow academics wrote to the Vice-Chancellor urging him to cancel it.
Our letter in support of Professor Clark points out that section 26 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 imposes a legal duty on higher education providers to uphold academic free speech. In addition, Glasgow University issued a statement on academic freedom in 2018 saying it supports the right of “individuals, groups and societies to arrange events, conferences, lectures and seminars on challenging topics with speakers who may be controversial”.
The signatories of the letter include the current executive director and president of the Economic History Association, as well as 15 ex-presidents, and some of the leading economic historians in the field, including Niall Ferguson.
You can read a story in the Scottish Times about the letter here.
FSU Spring Convention
We held an online “Spring Convention” for Gold and Founder members on Friday, 19th March in which the directors and staff of the FSU gave short presentations and then took questions. That membership tier is for people who want to play an active part in shaping the FSU and we had hoped to arrange a meeting so they could talk to the directors and staff in person. The lockdowns prevented us from doing that, so we organised this online convention instead. It lasted two hours, but we’ve put together a 45-minute highlight reel that you can watch on YouTube here.