Victory! Jeremy Sleath wins his case but more work needs to be done to protect employees’ rights

We are delighted that FSU member and train conductor Jeremy Sleath – sacked by West Midlands Trains for saying he didn’t want to live in an “alcohol-free caliphate” – has won his claim for unfair dismissal. The victory was reported in the Daily Mail. In welcome comments, the judge warned employers against grilling employees about private views irrelevant to their job.

Our Chief Legal Counsel Dr Bryn Harris said:

The dismissal was unfair because, among other things, the decision-maker took into account the irrelevant (and bizarre) matter of whether or not Jeremy would go on holiday in Dubai.

The decision-maker erred (as employers often do) by assuming that Jeremy’s views on all sorts of things were his employer’s concern. They were not. Those views didn’t go to the employment relationship, weren’t for the employer to judge, and Jeremy was free to express them.

Prudent employers will take heed. They do not have free rein to investigate and judge their employees’ beliefs in making disciplinary decisions.

Thanks to our members and supporters we raised a remarkable £22,000 to fight Jeremy’s case. But his case is the tip of the iceberg. Each month our case team receives dozens of requests for help from employees under fire for using their lawful right to free speech. You can donate to our general fighting fund here. Donations will be used to help us fight legal battles on behalf of our members, and for free speech more generally.

While we’re pleased to have helped Jeremy win this case, the judgment was not a landmark victory for the principle of free speech: it showed instead that substantial legal changes are needed to protect employees’ right to free expression outside of office hours.

Cambridge college forced to backdown over racist racism guidance

We’ve forced Downing College, Cambridge to revise guidance it issued encouraging students to report academics for “micro-aggressions”. Among other objectionable things, the policy said that white people could not be victims of racism. This guidance is remarkably similar to the university-wide guidance Cambridge introduced earlier this year and then withdrew after we and others objected. We wrote to Alan Bookbinder, Master of Downing College, raising our concerns about the chilling effect of this policy, and warning that the guidance could be unlawful. We urged Mr Bookbinder to revise the policy or else we would have to take legal action. You can read our letter here.

Following our intervention, the most pernicious aspects of the policy have been removed. As I told the Telegraph, “The College shouldn’t be encouraging students to complain to the authorities just because someone says something they find offensive, provided it’s not unlawful.”

We will continue to be vigilant about individual Cambridge colleges reheating policies like this that have been withdrawn at the university level because of their questionable legality.

Debate takes place at Sussex University about the victimisation of Kathleen Stock

Congratulations to Liberate the Debate and the Free Speech Champions for organising a ‘Free Speech Symposium’ at the University of Sussex, where Professor Kathleen Stock taught until very recently. The event, organised in response to Stock’s treatment, brought together students and academics to discuss why academic freedom matters, what students can do to defend it and how the pressure to self-censor manifests itself in campus life.

Speakers included Professor Dennis Hayes of Academics for Academic Freedom, Dr Arif Ahmed of Cambridge University (both on our Advisory council), Raquel Rosario-Sanchez, the PhD candidate who is currently suing Bristol University for enabling bullying and harassment of her by trans activists, and Sophie Watson, National Organiser of the Free Speech Champions’ University Free Speech Network. The event was well-attended by Sussex students and others who travelled from Sheffield, Warwick, Cambridge and London to take part. All left with a resolve to persuade others that academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to the purpose of the university.

Are the days of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ numbered?

An interesting ruling by the European Court of Human Rights has set a promising precedent for free speech cases where the state has overstepped the mark and left an individual feeling unable to exercise their right to free speech.

It’s worth reading this article by Andrew Tettenborn of our Legal Advisory Council in full, but the short version is that Strasbourg ruled the arrest of Rita Pal, an ex-NHS psychiatrist, for harassment after she took part in a heated email exchange with a barrister and ex-journalist had a chilling effect on her right to freedom of speech, even though the charges were ultimately dropped.

As Professor Tettenborn explains:

She then went to Strasbourg, saying that even though the actual charges had been dropped, her arrest itself had had a chilling effect on her freedom of speech. Here she succeeded. In the absence of clear evidence that the Met had thought seriously about protecting Pal’s freedom of speech, they had no business arresting her in such a way as would clearly discourage her from exercising her speech rights.

We think this will have interesting implications for the ongoing struggle against the recording of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ on people’s criminal records by the police for saying things that are completely lawful.

The House of Lords debated NCHIs recently and the consensus was that they should not appear on people’s criminal records. This Strasbourg ruling, the growing parliamentary scrutiny, and, of course, Harry Miller’s ongoing case, are all reasons to be optimistic.

New Zealand FSU backs academic facing expulsion from Royal Academy for defending science

The Royal Academy of New Zealand is investigating its member Professor Garth Cooper because he objected to a proposal from a government working group that the Maori religion and Western science should be given equal weight in the New Zealand curriculum, with the two being presented alongside each other as equally valid ways of understanding the world.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland apologised for the “hurt and dismay” Professor Cooper’s words had supposedly caused. Complaints to the Royal Academy followed and – incredibly – a panel has been convened to investigate with a view to expelling Professor Cooper, a distinguished biochemist. Our New Zealand affiliate is vigorously defending him.

If you’re a scholar in the sciences or the humanities, you can help by emailing Paul Atkins, the Chief Executive of the Paul Hunter, at paul.atkins@royalsociety.org.nz. Letters from professors and members of learned societies would be particularly effective. As I wrote in the Spectator recently in a piece about this case, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of intellectual intolerance is for believers in free speech to do nothing.”

We’re hiring!

There is currently a great opportunity to come and work for the Free Speech Union. We’re looking for a full-time Events and Operations Officer to help with our roster of events and to provide general administrative support to our friendly staff. Applications close on 14 December 2021, but we may appoint before then.

More details are available here. Please do forward the advert if you know somebody who would be a good fit for the role and is passionate about free speech.

Lessons in Courage: How I Fought Back Against Cancel Culture by Nick Buckley MBE

One of the best victories we won in our first year was the case of Nick Buckley MBE, the charity boss fired by his own charity for criticising the Marxist ideology behind the Black Lives Matter organisation. We linked him up with a top lawyer and he was reinstated almost immediately.

He’s now published a book, Lessons in Courage: How I Fought Back Against Cancel Culture and Won, about his experiences. It sold out on its first day but is currently available from Amazon.

He also spoke to Peter Whittle of the New Culture Forum about his brush with cancel culture. You can watch the interview here.

Welcome to the Woke Trials by Julie Burchill

Quentin Letts has praised Julie Burchill for “giving the woke a whacking” in her new book, Welcome to the Woke Trials. We found Julie a new publisher for the book last year after her contract was cancelled by Little, Brown – and we made sure she was paid in full. You can buy her book here.

Fighting back against cancel culture

In October we hosted a panel at the Battle of Ideas festival with five people who’d fought back against cancel culture: Harry Miller, Lisa Keogh, Gillian Philip, Sam Baylis and Nick Buckley. You can watch that discussion on YouTube. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Contrarian of the Year

I was delighted to win the 2021 Contrarian Prize last month in recognition of the work done by the Free Speech Union. As I wrote in my Spectator column about the award:

I was enormously grateful, having never won such a prize before. It was in recognition of the work I’ve done in helping to establish the Free Speech Union and I accepted it on behalf of the staff and the directors, as well as all the people who’ve been good enough to support the organisation.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this monthly newsletter. We’re proud of the work we do, and we think our work is important. Your support is also vital, and memberships start at just £2.49 a month, so please help us to carry on this fight by becoming a member and by spreading the word to friends and family, and sharing this newsletter on social media. Click here to sign up today.

Kind regards,

Toby Young