Weekly Briefing

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

TRANS – When Ideology Meets Reality: register for our July speakeasy event here!

We are delighted to announce that at our next Online Speakeasy, on Tuesday 12th July at 6.30pm BST, we will be joined by Helen Joyce. Helen is a long-time staff writer for The Economist. Her book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, was published by OneWorld in July 2021 and became an immediate bestseller, named by the Times, Spectator and Observer as one of their books of the year. In early 2022 Helen took a leave of absence from the Economist, with the editor-in-chief’s blessing, to work with start-up human-rights organisation Sex Matters, which campaigns for clarity about the two sexes, male and female, in law and in life. Helen will be interviewed by Dr Jan Macvarish, the FSU’s Education and Events Director. Please register here to receive the Zoom link.

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may already have come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise while exploring free speech issues. During July, Regional Speakeasies will be happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford. You can check out the dates of these in the new Events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members very shortly. Members are welcome to bring guests, particularly those likely to join the FSU!

Comedy Night – a big thank you to everyone who attended!

Thank you to all those who came to this week’s Comedy Night in London – we really enjoyed meeting you all. It was a great night for free-thinking comedy and we raised a good amount for the FSU coffers, meaning we can now do even more to defend free speech. Congratulations also to the four raffle winners. For members around the country, do look out for our Regional Speakeasies in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and oxford. You can see all our events here, but you’ll need to get the links to register from our regular FSU Events emails.

Speakers’ Corner reaches its 150th birthday

This week saw the 150th anniversary of the Parks Regulation Act, a piece of legislation that granted legal protection to that small portion of Hyde Park we know today as ‘Speakers’ Corner’. FSU General Secretary Toby Young was invited to the birthday celebrations for a site that’s become something of a symbol for the importance of free speech and freedom of expression in this country. As it happens, for media purposes Toby ended up addressing a sizeable crowd not just once, but twice (you can watch a clip here). Given Speakers’ Corner’s rich cultural history of impassioned debate, dissent, protest and vulgarity, it seemed entirely appropriate that during the second of those addresses Toby had to contend with a good deal of heckling. “Just as well speech is free, innit, because no one would pay to hear this rubbish,” said one, according to his piece in the Spectator about the experience.

Still, those parts of his speech that were audible were well worth listening to. “In spite of all the recent assaults on free speech,” he said, “we should take the time to celebrate the fact that this marvellous place has existed and has provided a platform for people with a huge range of different views to speak for 150 years.”

Later, Toby joined Mark Steyn on GB News to discuss the state of free speech in the UK. “Are we losing the habits of free speech?” Mark asked. Arguably, free speech was on a much surer footing 150 years ago, Toby said. The most celebrated defence of free speech ever written, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, had only been published 13 years before Speakers’ Corner was given legal protection, and the general support for free speech – indeed, for the philosophical foundations of free speech – among the British intelligentsia at that time was much greater than it is now.

The day before the 150th anniversary, the Metropolitan Police decided to mark the occasion in their own inimitable way by arresting Hatun Tash, an ex-Muslim turned evangelical Christian (Christian Concern) and member of the FSU. Hatun regularly debates the Qur’an at Speakers’ Corner, usually at great personal risk. In May of last year, for instance, a mob surrounded her screaming for her blood. In July, another mob dragged her to the ground. Later that month, she was stabbed. In October, she was punched in the face.

Footage of the most recent incident shows Hatun being attacked, robbed and then surrounded by an angry group, before the police move in to arrest her and drag her away in an arm-lock while the crowd cheers gleefully. Having strip searched her and kept her in a cell overnight, they then released her without charge. As birthday presents go, it probably wasn’t quite what Speakers’ Corner was expecting from the Met.

According to Hatun, whom Toby bumped into at Speakers’ Corner after her release, one of the things the police said to her by way of explanation was that some of the people in the park thought that her t-shirt, which reproduced one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, was offensive. “So what?” you might think. Being offensive isn’t against the law – at least, not yet.

In the wake of Hatun’s stabbing last year, the Mail reported that the Met was actively reviewing how to police Speakers’ Corner. If its new policy is to defuse tensions by forcibly denying citizens’ their right to freedom of expression simply because a mob finds what they have to say offensive, then free speech in the country of John Stuart Mill’s birth really is – as Toby put it on Mark Steyn’s show – “on life support”.

It’s also worth noting that, other than Toby’s piece for the Spectator, his appearance on GB News and a few wobbly, handheld videos uploaded to YouTube, the media have had nothing to say about this latest infringement of a Christian’s right to free speech and freedom of expression. Sometimes that which is left unreported can reveal as much about a society as that which makes the headlines.

We have written to the acting commissioners of the Metropolitan Police about the arrest of Hatun Tash, a letter you can read here. We’ve asked for a justification or, if they cannot provide one, an apology.

Lord Frost reacts to an IEA report on the Online Safety Bill

In the week that the House of Commons Public Bill Committee tasked with scrutinising the Online Safety Bill valiantly sat down to undertake its seventeenth sitting, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) published a new briefing paper titled An Unsafe Bill: How the Online Safety Bill threatens free speech, innovation and privacy. It’s well worth a read (as are the summaries that its co-authors, Matthew Lesh and Victoria Hewson, wrote for the Telegraph and Times). Specifically in relation to the Bill’s likely impact on freedom of expression online, the IEA briefing echoes many of the points the FSU has made in previous publications (here, here and here).

Responding to the IEA’s findings for the Mail, FSU Advisory Council member Lord Frost was distinctly unimpressed. This “unsatisfactory” and “unconservative” Bill, he said, contained so many flaws that “it is hard to know where to start”. The peer did, however, go on to single out for criticism the fact that the Bill will discourage platforms from permitting the expression of views that the Secretary of State considers to be harmful, even if that speech is legal. As a result, he warned, the Bill will likely “pander to the views of the perennially offended – those who think the Government should protect them from ever encountering anything they disagree with”, before adding that the Tories “should not be putting this view into law”. The best thing the Government could do, he concluded, would be to slim it down (a view echoed in the Lords this week by Lord Strathcarron). This would allow it to “proceed rapidly with the genuinely uncontroversial aspects and consign the rest where it belongs – the wastepaper basket”.

According to a recent article in ConHome, Lord Frost is hoping to become an MP, and – who knows – perhaps even take up a ministerial portfolio. In that light, it’s interesting to reflect on the results of a recent YouGov poll of 982 Conservative Party members commissioned by the Legal to Say, Legal to Type campaign (Guido). Four in five (79%) believe people should be able to post things online that are offensive but legal, and that speech online should not be more restricted than offline. A majority (51%) also worry that Ofcom, the proposed regulator, will not be impartial. In addition, when asked to rank issues relating to online safety by priority for the government, just 3% said the government should prioritise comments which are offensive but do not break any laws.

The last prospective parliamentary candidate to find himself so in tune with the thoughts of the Conservative Party’s grassroots members while seeking to return to the Commons was Boris Johnson – now, of course, the Prime Minster.

“Reflect” on your relationship to Advance HE, Michelle Donelan asks universities

Universities minister Michelle Donelan this week wrote to higher education providers in England to ask them to “consider carefully” whether participation in schemes like Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter is compatible with free speech and academic freedom principles (Times, Telegraph, Times Higher). There is, she writes, “growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion”. In particular, university membership and participation in external assurance and benchmarking diversity schemes like the Race Equality Charter, operated by Advance HE, are described by the Minister as potentially being “in tension with [the creation of] an environment that promotes and protects free speech”. Having acknowledged that universities and other HE providers are “autonomous institutions”, and that decisions over whether or not to join such schemes are “up to each individual provider”, she goes on to “ask” those institutions to “reflect carefully” as to whether membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing “an HE environment in which free speech and academic freedom can flourish”.

Understood in its proper context, the letter is a devilishly clever piece of rhetoric with the potential to force HE providers to ‘choose sides’, as it were (on this point see Wonk HE here and here). “Autonomous institutions”, as Ms Donelan is at pains to point out, are as free to take or leave the government’s advice as they are free to take or leave membership schemes run by bodies like Advance HE. But where they do not end up standing on the side of free speech – the Government’s side, as Ms Donelan would see it – and instead continue to participate in membership schemes run by bodies like Advance HE, the minister will from now on understand them to be making an active and very deliberate choice not to do so.

But then, if the Government stands for academic freedom, what exactly does Advance HE stand for? “Egregious wokery,” according to one anonymous Government source (Telegraph). Not that Advance HE is likely to adopt that as its marketing strapline anytime soon – to them, the Race Equality Charter simply represents a “framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students”. (Although here it’s probably worth reading this piece by Dr. Wanjiru Njoya and Professor Doug Stokes, both members of the FSU’s Advisory Council, in which they point out that such barriers are imaginary.)

And yet it isn’t just anonymous Government sources who are expressing concerns that a desire on the part of universities to find favour with Advance HE is behind moves such as overhauling curricula to remove classic texts that may now be deemed offensive. In a recent letter to the Education Secretary, for instance, 25 Conservative MPs and peers claimed that the Race Equality Charter programme, which now counts almost 100 universities and colleges as paid-up members, encourages “identity politics” on campuses (Telegraph). MPs in the Conservative Parliamentary Party’s Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs also believe that Advance HE’s influence, including its push for universities to “decolonise” their curricula, is leading to initiatives such as the use of “content notes” or “trigger warnings” to forewarn students about the subject matter of course texts, enabling them “to take the necessary steps to engage safely and with minimal psychological distress”.

As the Telegraph reported last month, of the 23 universities who have signed up to the diversity scheme, 20 of them – including the University of Warwick and Imperial College London – have explicitly said they are “decolonising” courses, while the remaining three have pledged to “liberate”, “diversify” or introduce “compulsory race equality” to their syllabuses. As MPs have pointed out, this rather damning fact casts some doubt on Advance HE’s recent insistence that the charter does not require higher education institutions to decolonise their curricula in order to win an award. (Telegraph)

The FSU believes Ms Donelan is right to challenge the relationship that charities like Advance HE have with universities, and, in particular, the sway they appear to hold over the nature, style and content of academic teaching at those institutions.

Specifically, we believe the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – which has just passed the second reading stage in the House of Lords – should be amended to specify the right of academic staff to be consulted on and express criticism of the curriculum choices of its institution, including where a university makes an ideological decision to ‘decolonise’ its curricula. This should form part of a broader commitment to enshrine in the HEB the fundamental right of academics to criticise the policies, procedures and decisions of their employers. After all, as Donelan rightly suggests, they’re independent bodies.

This amendment is one of seven that we’ve proposed in our latest briefing paper on the Bill (which you can read here). Over the next few weeks, we’re looking forward to engaging with the FSU’s allies in both chambers of Parliament to ensure that the final version of the Bill makes its new protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom even more robust.

Halifax tells its customers where to go if they don’t like its staff pronoun badges

Preferred pronouns began their long march through the institutions some time ago, but it’s only in recent years that they’ve moved from “the preserve of over-enthusiastic Student Union reps or tie-dyed Labour Party conference attendees”, as Joanna Williams put it in Spiked, to the corporate mainstream. Asda, for instance, were an ‘early adopter’ in 2020. Last year, diversity managers at HSBC and Marks & Spencer also began introducing staff pronoun badges as part of a nationwide drive to help start what M&S’s food PR manager described at the time as “very necessary conversations around non-binary experiences”. Not to be outdone, taxpayer-backed NatWest announced that it was to trial a 2022 branch uniform that would give employees the option of adding their preferred pronouns on to new name badges that would be made not from plastic but – wait for it – environmentally friendly bamboo.

No doubt feeling that Pride month was the perfect opportunity to catch up with the virtue-signalling corporate crowd, Halifax this week tweeted an image of one of its new staff pronoun badges in a post that read: “Pronouns matter. #It’sAPeopleThing.” The attached photograph showed a badge attached to the lapel of ‘Gemma’, with the pronouns ‘she/her/hers’ written beneath – the possessive (‘hers’) option presumably added to the standard nominative (she) and accusative (her) forms just in case female Gemma ever decides she wants to relate to her workplace stationary, coffee cup or uniform via an entirely different gender identity – ‘male’, say, or ‘pangender’.

According to Halifax, the scheme “is completely optional” (as quoted in the Evening Standard), and the bank is “offering [its] colleagues the choice because we want to create a safe and accepting environment that opens the conversation around gender identity”. It’s hard to read that statement without feeling that a hint of moral compulsion starts to creep in towards the end.

A few hours later, and presumably in response to the online criticism picked up by various media outlets (Independent, Telegraph, ITV, BBC), Halifax released another tweet. Although intended for customers, its tone, tenor and underlying message surely can’t have been missed by any staff members who may have been toying with the idea of opting out of their employer’s “completely optional” scheme. As statement’s go it’s not quite up there with the Daily News’s infamous 1975 rendering of President Ford’s response to New York City’s request for a Federal Government bailout (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) but it is perhaps the latter-day, passive-aggressive woke equivalent: “We strive for inclusion, equality and quite simply in doing what’s right. If you disagree with our values, you’re welcome to close your account.”

Close your account, hand in your notice – whatever. #It’sAPeopleThing.

Writing about the sense of compulsion that seems to linger around this and other, similar schemes, Joanna Williams points out that staff who refuse to comply “risk being singled out, coming to the attention of managers, sent on diversity training sessions or accused of prejudice”. And yet those are all activist strategies; that is, they depend on an employer deliberately going after recalcitrant employees. Surely, though, a policy of passive neglect is just as likely. It’s certainly difficult to believe that staff wishing to opt out, and, by implication, wishing to do what Halifax has made clear it regards as “the wrong thing” – perpetuating an unsafe, exclusionary environment that stifles important conversations around gender identity – will be getting any good news in the firm’s next round of promotions.

Still, anyone who feels brave enough to want to push back if their employer asks them to declare their preferred gender pronouns, might like to take a look at the Free Speech Union’s new FAQ on the issue here.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member, please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

FSU Comedy Night on 29th June – book your tickets here!

London members are encouraged to get tickets to our Summer Special Comedy Night on Wednesday 29th June (here), where there will be plenty of opportunities to meet other members and the FSU’s staff. As this event is a fundraiser, it’s open to the public – so do please encourage friends and family to come along. You can share the Eventbrite link with them here.

We can also exclusively reveal that our raffle prizes on the night will include the chance to go for a pint with the FSU’s General Secretary – Toby Young – a guided tour of the GB News studios in Paddington, and a collection of books curated by our guest acts on the night. We’ll also be unveiling our new ‘Unmute Yourself’ FSU badges – surely this summer’s must-have lapel accessory for any self-respecting free speech warrior – plus a selection of specially designed tote bags, featuring free speech quotes from the likes of George Orwell and Benjamin Franklin.

The MC on the night will be Dominic Frisby, who has very kindly recorded this video to tell our members more about the event. Dominic will be performing a special set of comedy hits with his band The Gilets Jaunes – you can watch a clip of him reminding the audience what his preferred pronouns are during a Comedy Club performance here. Also on the bill is comedy crooner Frank Sanazi, described in the UK comedy guide Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be fresh from Glastonbury Festival, and readying himself for an attack on the Edinburgh Fringe. You can catch part of his set here.

The link to book tickets is here.

TRANS: When Ideology Hits Reality – register for our July speakeasy event here!

We are delighted to announce that at our next Online Speakeasy, on Tuesday 12th July at 6.30pm BST, will be with journalist, campaigner and author of the Sunday Times Bestseller TRANS: When Ideology Hits Reality, Helen Joyce. Helen has been instrumental in opening up the debate about sex, gender and women’s rights. Helen will be interviewed by Dr Jan Macvarish, the FSU’s Education and Events Director.

Register here to receive the Zoom link.

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may already have come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise while discussing free speech issues. During late June and July, Regional Speakeasies will be happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford. You can check out the dates of these in the new Events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members very shortly. Members are welcome to bring guests, particularly those likely to join the FSU!

FSU writes to Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan

The FSU has this week written to the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, and the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, to thank them for introducing two essential amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that we campaigned for: first, removing the caveat “within their field of expertise” from Clause 1, so the new free speech protections apply to academics regardless of whether they’re speaking or writing about something within their field of expertise or not; and second, making it harder for “security costs” to be cited by universities or student unions to justify no-platforming a controversial speaker. We were also pleased to see Ms Donelan confirm in the House that temporary and visiting academic staff will be shielded by the Bill’s additional protections, another thing we’ve been campaigning for.

In his capacity as General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, Toby Young wrote to the Education Secretary and Universities Minister this week to convey his appreciation. You can read his letter in full here, but it’s worth quoting the conclusion in full:

While we may disagree on certain points – we are a non-partisan organisation – we are united in our common belief that freedom of expression must be protected and promoted at all costs. We will continue to work alongside you and your ministers to achieve exactly that. Freedom of speech is the foundational value on which all our other freedoms depend.

You can read our briefing on the Bill here

National coverage of the FSU’s victory in its battle with Worcester College, Oxford

The Telegraph carried news of a huge victory for the Free Speech Union this week in its long-running battle with Worcester College, Oxford. The FSU has “stood shoulder to shoulder with Christian Concern throughout this dispute,” General Secretary Toby Young told the paper.

This is the news that the college has admitted it “misled” students after capitulating to an activist mob back in 2021 and cancelling a Christian event that had been due to take place on its campus. Worcester College, run by David Isaac, the former Chair of LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall (2003-12) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2016-20), had previously apologised to students for hosting a Christian Concern training camp – known as the Wilberforce Academy.  Mr Isaac then proceeded to cancel a second booking after a small number of students complained that they had been “distressed” by the presence of the Academy on campus over the summer months. In what the Mail described at the time as an example of cancel culture in Britain’s universities, Worcester College initially emailed students to acknowledge that the booking “was a serious failure that has caused significant distress” whilst promising to use the proceeds from the event for “diversity initiatives”.

Toby first wrote to Mr Isaac in September 2021, pointing out that to exclude a group from holding an event on the College’s premises because of its Christian beliefs would be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. “Under section 29(1) of that Act,” he said, “Worcester’s response to student distaste at the Wilberforce Academy seems to amount, quite openly, to a policy of discrimination.” You can read Toby’s email, along with the Provost’s response, here.

In March of this year, an independent review found “no evidence” for the allegations made by a fellow of the College, that “aggressive leafleting” had taken place and that conference attendees had made “unsolicited approaches” to staff and students to discuss controversial opinions on LGBT conversation therapy (Telegraph). As the review made clear, the College acted on these complaints despite staff and students being unable to locate copies of the leaflets, and despite Christian Concern stating that no leaflets had in fact been distributed.

Following the report’s publication, Toby wrote again to Mr Isaac again, asking him to retract his apology, and withdraw the ban he imposed on further bookings by the Academy. “We continue to stand by Christian Concern,” he wrote, “and will provide whatever legal and financial assistance we deem appropriate should this matter escalate.” You can read that letter in full here).

After these warnings that its stance was potentially discriminatory, the College has this week admitted that it was “misleading to suggest that Conference delegates or representatives of Christian Concern acted improperly in an email to students in September 2021”.

In a joint statement issued with Christian Concern, both parties reaffirmed their mutual commitment “to the right to freedom of speech and religious belief and the dignity of all people”. In a world where “differing views are strongly and sincerely held”, the statement added, “it is important to come together and listen to each other. To that end, Worcester has invited Christian Concern to speak at a debate which will take place as soon as can be arranged.”

As Toby pointed out in the Telegraph, “the mistake Worcester College made was to immediately capitulate to the demands of an activist mob and ban a group from its premises without properly investigating the allegations against it.” He went on: “We see this kind of institutional cowardice again and again, particularly in the higher education sector, usually motivated by a desire for a quiet life. The way to force these institutions to take their responsibility to uphold free speech more seriously is to make it clear that organisations like ours will create an almighty fuss if they don’t.”

Students want more restrictions on free speech, says a recent HEPI poll

Students have “become less liberal in their approach to freedom of expression in recent years”, according to a study published this week (the Times, Mail and Guardian). A poll of 1,019 UK undergraduates by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests that they want more restrictions on free speech than their predecessors who came of age around the time of the Brexit referendum. Thirty-nine per cent said students’ unions should “ban all speakers that cause offence” – more than double the 16% found last time the survey was undertaken in 2016. More than one-third (36%) of the respondents also believe academics should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students”, up from 15% in 2016. And when presented with the phrase “if you debate an issue like sexism or racism, you make it acceptable”, the proportion of students expressing some agreement doubled to 35% (up from 17% in 2016) – and the proportion expressing complete disagreement halved (down from 38% to 20%).

As the report’s author, Nick Hillman, remarks, it is “abundantly clear” that “a high proportion of students have a very different conception of academic freedom and free speech norms than earlier generations and from many of those who legislate, regulate or govern UK higher education institutions”. Hillman charitably attributes this decline in support for free speech to the tough time students have had in the past six years – Covid, industrial action, the ‘cost-of-living-crisis’ – leading to a preoccupation with ‘safety’. Maybe so, Toby Young concedes in the Spectator, “but surely the main cause is that organisations such as Stonewall and Advance HE have successfully infected British universities with hard-left identitarian ideology under the guise of promoting ‘diversity and inclusion’”.

The metaphor of infection is an interesting one – pursuing it, we might usefully ask how the malady ever managed to ‘take hold’ of its campus ‘hosts’ in the first place. Perhaps the beginnings of an answer are to be found in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2018). As its title suggests, the book is mainly concerned with the situation in the US, but it may well shed light on some of what is happening in the UK, too. The book charts the emergence of a culture of “safetyism” among so-called ‘iGen’ (i.e., the cohort of kids born from 1995 onwards). Coddled by parents while children, their lives subsequently delimited, scheduled and managed by a panoply of well-meaning, middle-class adults during adolescence, they arrive at early adulthood immature, unprepared for university life and incapable of resolving conflicts and difficult situations on their own. Challenging ideas, people, encounters, concepts, situations, subsequently come to be misrecognized as hostile and threatening to their safety or wellbeing. Haidt and Lukianoff’s claim is that, aided by highly risk-averse university administrators, iGens go on to establish campus cultures in which their instinctive, censorial impulses (“X offends me – no-one has the right to offend me”) are laundered through a style of therapeutic language that evokes such vulnerability it remains forever immune to scholarly criticism or intellectual challenge (“X threatens my wellbeing – no-one has the right to damage my health”).

Amongst the recommendations Hillman makes to universities looking to challenge the free speech crisis on campus are balancing controversial speakers with other speakers with different viewpoints, supporting students’ unions to foster an open culture and reassessing formal procedures to ensure they are sufficiently robust. If Haidt and Lukianoff are right, it’s going to take a lot more than that.

The Government presents plans for a UK Bill of Rights

On Wednesday (22nd June), the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab unveiled a major overhaul of human rights laws with the draft UK Bill of Rights. It will effectively replace New Labour’s 1998 Human Rights Act, which incorporated the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights into UK law with the result that British courts have since had to take into account rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. According to the Telegraph, the bill will “make Parliament and the UK’s Supreme Court the ‘ultimate arbiters’ on whether and how to implement European court judgments”. As if to emphasise the need for the legislation, last week the (ECHR) granted an emergency injunction (a so-called rule 39 interim order) for a passenger on the government’s first flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda until a High Court challenge on the legality of the government’s policy has been decided – this despite Britain’s High Court, three Court of Appeal judges and the Supreme Court giving the plane the green light for take off (Telegraph).

Yet as the Justice Secretary himself was quick to point out in an op-ed for the Sun, curbing abuses of the human rights system is just one of the bill’s two “fundamental aims”. The other is to “strengthen traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech” – “under attack”, as he put it, “from expanding privacy law to stifling political correctness”.

With the cancellation of the Kigali-bound flight still fresh in the memory, it was perhaps inevitable that in the media – and in the Chamber following Dominic Raab’s statement to the House – attention would focus on the questions the bill raises in relation to where the locus of judicial decision-making power on human-rights issues will lie once the legislation reaches the statute book.

Some of the press coverage was, as Luke Gittos put it for Spiked, “hysterical”. The bill is racist, claimed some (Independent). It takes “a hatchet to the single most powerful rights tool this country has ever had”, claimed another (Guardian). Not so, shot back Lord Bellamy QC for ConHome. “This isn’t about rolling back on fundamental freedoms and protections in our country,” he said, adding that the UK remains committed to the ECHR. The issue is “simply that some provisions in the [Human Rights] Act have been interpreted as a duty to follow Strasbourg case law closely – leading to rulings that many people in our country invariably would not recognise as part of human rights”. This “undermines public confidence in the system and tends to give human rights a bad name”, which is why the Bill of Rights needs to “press the reset button” and make Parliament and the UK’s Supreme Court once again the “ultimate arbiters” on whether and how to implement European court judgments.

On the issue of the bill’s other fundamental aim – “strengthen[ing] traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech” – it was left to the Mail and the Press Gazette to report that it would give whistle-blowers “extra confidence to speak to journalists”, with courts forced to meet “a higher bar before demanding that a journalist disclose a source’s identity”. At present, a court can order journalists to reveal their sources if there are grounds to show it would prevent a crime or is in the interests of justice or national security. An extra test will be added to the bill, ensuring that “a journalist will have to reveal a source only if there are exceptional and compelling reasons to consider it is in the public interest”.

According to the Telegraph, ministers hope the bill will become law by the end of the year. The FT wasn’t so sure about that, warning that it “may face a choppy passage through parliament” – a view subsequently endorsed on Tuesday when the BBC’s Political Editor, Chris Mason, reported no fewer than four parliamentary committees already demanding the plans be “subject to the fullest amount of public and parliamentary scrutiny to ensure their appropriateness, practicality, and longevity”.

In-house professional services now available to all FSU members at a discount

Thor Holt is our in-house counsellor who provides pro bono psychological support to members when they’re in the eye of a cancellation storm. But he also provides other professional trusted counsel, such as finding investment for businesses in need, guiding stressed medics and lawyers through professional exams and helping people from all walks of life develop confident public speaking skills. You can contact him on WhatsApp +44 7906 321593 or on LinkedIn here.

Fact and fiction – join Transgender Trend’s founder for a literary fundraiser!

At a time when it is risky to question any aspect of gender identity ideology for fear of being accused of ‘transphobia’, Transgender Trend are hosting a fundraising event to “celebrate the pioneers who have had the courage to write and publish books on the issue” and it will feature, among other speakers, Professor Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans and Milli Hill. Transgender Trend’s founder, Stephanie Davies-Arai, says that she has hand-picked books that, for her, “have facilitated public awareness and debate and sent a powerful message: authors have a right to freedom of thought and the subject of gender identity is not exempt from critique”.

You can book tickets for the event here.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member, please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer.

 

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

FAQs on what to do if you are asked to declare your preferred gender pronouns

We have been contacted by many members recently asking what to do about the fact that their employer has asked them to declare their preferred gender pronouns, usually below their name at the bottom of an email or official correspondence. Consequently, we thought it would be useful to pull together some FAQs on this issue.

As with so many free speech issues, there are some legal protections for employees who do not wish to declare their gender pronouns, but there are also some legal justifications employers can cite for trying to get them to do so, namely, the Equality Act 2010. Then again, the Equality Act also provides some protection for employees if they’re being discriminated against on the basis of their religious or philosophical beliefs, such as the belief that sex is binary and fixed. So it’s complicated. The bottom line is that if you have been asked to publicly declare your preferred pronouns by your manager or boss and you believe you might suffer a detriment if you refuse to do so, you should contact a member of our case team.

FSU Comedy Night on 29th June – get your tickets here!

London members, many of whom came to our packed meet-up in March, are encouraged to get tickets to our Summer Special Comedy Night on Wednesday 29th June, where there will be plenty of opportunities to meet other members and the FSU’s staff. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby – who you can watch talking about the event here. Dominic will be performing a special set of comedy hits with his band the Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be joined by his friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and Tom Mones. As this event is also a fund-raiser it is open to the public – get your tickets here.

TRANS – When Ideology Hits Reality: register for our July speakeasy event here!

We are delighted to announce that at our next Online Speakeasy, on Tuesday 12th July at 6.30pm BST, we will be joined by journalist, author and campaigner Helen Joyce. Helen has been instrumental in opening up the debate about sex, gender and women’s rights. Helen will be interviewed by Dr Jan Macvarish, the FSU’s Education and Events Director. Register here to receive the Zoom link.

The FSU launches its Scottish office web page

Back in April, the FSU opened a Scottish office due to overwhelming demand from its Scottish members who are concerned that free speech is in peril north of the border. This week saw the launch of our new Scottish office webpage, which you can access here. Not only does the page showcase the work the FSU is already doing on behalf of its Scottish members, it also acts as a great first point of contact for members – or prospective members – who are concerned that they’re being penalised for exercising their lawful right to free speech and need to get in touch with our case team. As Fraser Hudghton, our Director of Case Management and the Director of FSU Scotland, notes, “There are specific challenges in Scotland with devolved legislation and it’s vitally important Scots know that we are there to provide help when they need it most.”

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may have already come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise while exploring free speech issues. During late June and July, Regional Speakeasies will be happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford. You can check out the dates of these in the new Events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members very shortly. Members are welcome to bring guests, particularly those likely to join the FSU!

Lady of Honour film cancellation – a request for information from our readers

In last week’s newsletter we reviewed press coverage of the decision by Cineworld and Showcase to cancel showings of the film Lady of Heaven in response to aggressive protests by some Muslims who regarded the film as offensive. As we pointed out, in bowing to the demands of a tiny group of religious extremists, they were depriving paying customers of their right to see the film for themselves and make up their own minds about its contents. We’d now like to follow up on that point and want to know whether any of our members, supporters and friends were affected by the protests in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Blackburn, Birmingham or Stratford. Do please get in touch if you or your family members were prevented from seeing the film by the protests, whether that’s because your local cinema cancelled it, because you felt intimidated or because protestors blocked you from getting in to see it. You can reach us via help@freespeechunion.org or by direct messaging us on Twitter (@SpeechUnion), Facebook (@SpeechUnion) or LinkedIn (“The Free Speech Union”).

‘Legal but harmful’ content and the Online Safety Bill: Toby Young v Chris Philp

In a piece for ConservativeHome this week, FSU General Secretary Toby Young “goes to the heart of what’s wrong” with this Bill: “Not only is the concept of ‘legal but harmful’ content a weaselly way of trying to restrict free speech – of trying to square a circle that cannot be squared – but it is a breach of the fundamental principle of English Common Law that unless something is explicitly prohibited it is permitted.”

It’s well worth a read, not least for the superbly exegetical manner in which Toby accounts for the discrepancy between the FSU’s understanding of the Bill, and the public statements currently being made about the Bill by Chris Philp, the minister tasked with the “nightmarish” job of seeing the legislation through the Commons.

Briefly, the FSU’s position, which Toby set out in an earlier piece for The Critic, is that the Bill will “force social media companies to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content from their platforms”. The bottom line, he added, “is that stuff it is perfectly legal to say and write offline will be prohibited online”. Last week, however, Philp wrote a piece for ConHome in which he denied that, saying social media companies could actually “choose to allow it [i.e., ‘legal but harmful’ content] on their platforms”.

As Toby points out in his recent ConHome piece, Philp was certainly right to say that “while ‘Category 1’ providers will have an obligation to stipulate how they intend to respond to ‘legal but harmful’ content in their terms and conditions, they will not be required to remove it”. But in suggesting that this would leave providers with the ability to “choose” what to do about ‘legal but harmful’ content the minster was “being disingenuous.” That’s because the Bill describes the four different responses available to providers in such a way as to deter them from taking Philp’s “laissez-faire approach”. Briefly, the four choices are: 1. Taking down content; 2. Restricting users’ access to content; 3. Limiting the recommendation or promotion of content; 4. Recommending or promoting content. Choosing simply to “allow” content that is ‘legal but harmful’ to adults on their platforms isn’t one of those four options, and “it is frankly inconceivable that YouTube, Facebook or Twitter will choose option (d) after the Government has designated the content in question ‘harmful’”.

At one point in his article, Philp remarks that the Commons committee currently scrutinising the Bill has heard evidence from a “wide range of people… welcoming this pioneering internet safety law”. Maybe so, Toby says, but as this little legislative contretemps suggests, “had the committee invited the FSU to give evidence – or, indeed, Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch, or any other pro-free speech organisations – the response would have been less enthusiastic”.

The Online Safety Bill and the spectre of “press regulation via the back door”

The version of the Online Safety Bill that passed through second reading and has now reached committee stage was designed to grant special protection from online censorship to “content of democratic importance and journalistic content”. The fact that the clauses in the Bill that protect such content cannot be overridden by secondary legislation suggests the government is taking great care to avoid a de facto system of state regulation of the press once the Bill reaches the statute book.

These forbiddingly technical points made an appearance in the popular press this week, after it was revealed that Labour MP Kim Leadbeater had put forward an amendment to the Online Safety Bill stating that safeguards in the legislation protecting online media content from being removed should only be open to those newspapers which are “a member of an approved regulator (as defined in section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013)”. Her reasoning, as quoted by the Times, was that “the bill as drafted has far too many loopholes and risks granting legal protection to those wishing to spread harmful content and disinformation in the name of ‘journalism’”.

For the Mail, this was little more than a “cynical plot to put free Press in peril” (also see the Times leading article on 14th May). As the paper went on to explain, the amendment was making a clear allusion to “one of the most controversial aspects of the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards”, namely, “the demand that newspapers should sign up to a state-approved regulator”. All major national newspapers have of course steadfastly refused to sign up to a state-approved regulator on the basis that it would give the government a way of controlling the press. A state-approved regulator, Impress, was set up after the Leveson inquiry, but as the Mail reminded its readers, no major national newspaper is part of what it described, with a wonderfully condescending turn of phrase, as “this set-up”. Instead, most papers have opted to sign up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), “a regulator which is neither controlled nor funded by the State”. It was in this context that Iain Duncan Smith described the amendment as “a Labour attempt to bring in [press] regulation by the back door, and the Government must stand very firm against it” (quoted in the Mail).

Apparently, they did. “Ministers sink threat to free Press” declared the headline to a follow-up piece in the Mail the next day. “Ministers yesterday saw off an attempt to introduce State regulation of the Press by the back door”, the article continued. Maybe so, but later on in that article one finds the following, rather less settled description of the current state of play: “Labour’s Kim Leadbeater, the MP for Batley and Spen, agreed to withdraw the amendment to allow more discussion on the issue.”

Incidentally, one of the points Toby made in his piece in the Critic about the Bill is that it would only need the slightest of tweaks to usher in state regulation of the press – and he described exactly the risk that materialised in the form of Leadbeater’s proposed amendment. One of the great dangers of this Bill is that even if the current Government stands firm on this issue, it has signposted a simple way for a Labour Government to bring in Leveson by the back door.

The “staggering” verdict in Carole Cadwalladr v Arron Banks

The FSU welcomes the verdict in the Arron Banks v Carole Cadwalladr case. As Rebecca Vincent from the press freedom campaign group, Reporters without Borders, said, “It wasn’t just Ms Cadwalladr’s reputation that was at stake, but also the ability of the press to report freely on such issues.” Over in the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill took a similar view, suggesting that “you should never sue people for what they say, even if it is untrue or hurtful”, before urging those more litigiously minded of his readers to counter the “codswallop” of their detractors “in the public square instead”.

That said, it’s not difficult to understand why Brendan O’Neill went on to describe the Judge’s verdict as “pretty staggering”. Arron Banks, the founder of the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, brought the action in relation to two public utterances made by Cadwalladr. The first came during a TED talk in which she said: “I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.” The second utterance took the form of a Tweet that linked to her TED talk and made similar claims. Banks’s case was that both of these utterances were false and defamatory. Mrs Justice Steyn did in fact rule that the first utterance was both false and defamatory of Banks – who has, by the way, always strongly denied the allegations in question – but she accepted Ms Cadwalladr’s “public interest” defence (BBC), rooted in the fact that she could not have known it was false at the time.

So far, so unremarkable, you might think. It’s at this point, however, that, according to Brendan, things started to get a little “weird”. With respect to the tweet, for which there was no public interest defence, and which was also deemed to be false, Mrs Justice Steyn rejected the claim it was damaging to Banks’ reputation on the basis that “it would only have been seen by Cadwalladr’s online fanclub, most of whom will already have thought Banks was dodgy”.

In other words, “It was only Twitter, M’lud.”

The FSU welcomes this legal precedent and looks forward from now on to that argument being applied to all those who use Twitter, not just blue-tick ‘Follow back, pro-European’ (or FBPE) campaigners, activists and journalists.

Cancel culture realises social and racial benefits, say the Open University

According to the Mail, the Open University has established a fruitful working relationship with online training provider FutureLearn and Labour frontbencher David Lammy. The result has been a training programme tailored to the needs of UK university staff and students. Organisers say the course – titled Union Black: Britain’s black cultures and steps to anti-racism – was developed in response to a Universities UK report from 2020 called Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education. It’s proved remarkably popular too, with nearly 100 universities across the UK now offering the course to their staff and students.

According to the Telegraph, course materials suggest that during training sessions, “academics are urged to become ‘active allies’ in advancing racial justice, and are taught about the advantages of ‘cancelling’ people and institutions”. Helpfully, the online module then goes on to explain what those advantages are. “Cancel culture” has, for instance, “been shown to realise benefits” in relation to “racial and social justice”. The course maintains that “holding people or entities accountable for immoral or unacceptable behaviour” is a good thing, as is “promoting collective action to achieve social justice and cultural change through social pressure”.

FSU General Secretary Toby Young wasn’t impressed. “The practice of publicly shaming your intellectual opponents and calling for them to lose their livelihoods is absolutely abhorrent and has no place in universities,” he told the Telegraph. “Academics should be free to dissent from prevailing campus orthodoxies without fear of punishment.” Over in the Mail, Dr Bryn Harris, the FSU’s Chief Legal Counsel confessed himself to be “disappointed, though sadly not surprised”, adding that it was yet another “sad example of UK universities’ inability to be serious about academic freedom and freedom of speech”. 

In fairness, the course does concede that any academics wishing to dust off their pitchforks should first engage in “due diligence before effectively ‘cancelling’ someone”. But given that – as the Telegraph points out – participants are told elsewhere on the course that “white superiority is embedded in the linguistic and cultural psychology of the English language” and that, as a result, it is “covertly woven” into all of our minds, one wonders how “due diligence” can possibly be performed without ‘unconscious biases’ of various kinds affecting the process. Perhaps Morse Code, silent Zumba or Semaphore might offer more socially just, equitable alternatives to the endemically racist English language.

Areo magazine – take a read and show your support!

Areo is an independent digital journal with free speech at the heart of its mission. Named for John Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica, a pioneering call for freedom of the press, Areo publishes on politics, society, culture and the arts, fearlessly giving a voice to heterodox thinkers at a time when cancel culture and illiberalism seek to narrow the range of debate. One such heterodox thinker is Richard Dawkins, who calls Areo “the place to go for unintimidated sanity in a bullying mad world”. FSU supporters looking for a bit of “unintimidated sanity” can read Areo here and support their Patreon here to get exclusive content from contributors like Dawkins and Stephen Pinker.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

The Times Higher Education reports the FSU’s victory over University of Essex

As reported in our monthly newsletter, the FSU recently scored a big victory in its battle with the University of Essex. “Free Speech Union legal pressure forces Essex harassment changes,” declared the headline in the Times Higher Education this week. Noting that the university has now “revised its policy on harassment under legal pressure from the Free Speech Union”, the THE felt the result “spotlighted the [FSU’s] influence and the prospect of it mounting bigger legal actions against institutions if England’s free speech bill becomes law”.

Professor Doug Stokes, Head of Planning and Development at the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter, described this as a “major victory” for the FSU in a piece for his Substack account. Bryn Harris, our Chief Legal Counsel, is quoted in Stokes’s piece expressing his hope that other universities will adopt Essex’s “sensible and encouraging approach”. Stokes himself doesn’t think they’ve got much choice. For too long, he argues, “universities have used the Equality Act to push an ideological agenda and degrade liberal values”,  which means that once the Higher Education Bill reaches the statue book, universities will quickly need to “revisit their own protocols”.

His recommendation would be that they take sound advice to redraft their policies and ensure they’re compliant with the new law, and that they take that advice not from their own legal teams – “who to date seem to be getting the law badly wrong” – but from academic freedom and equality law specialists. What’s more, “given the legislation seeks to ensure higher education providers are actively promoting academic freedom, an Office for Students compliance regime will back this up and likely seek long overdue scalps. Universities should also formalize positions, to ensure faculties/departments are compliant. The clock is ticking.”

The FSU writes to Cineworld after protests lead them to pull Muslim film

On 3 June, 2022 The Lady of Heaven, an independent film about the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, was released in cinemas across the UK, including at venues owned by Cineworld, Showcase and Vue. Yasser Al-Habib, the Shia Muslim cleric who wrote the screenplay, claims the film “conveys a message of love and peace”, although, as FSU Founding Director, Inaya Folarin Iman, pointed out for Spiked this week, not everyone appears to have got the memo on that one. The Bolton Council of Mosques called the film “blasphemous”, the Muslim Council of Britain described the film as “divisive”, and, according to Sky News, over 120,000 people have now signed a petition for the film to be pulled from UK cinemas.

Islamic hardliners have also been protesting outside cinemas across England. According to the Mail, one protestor at the Cineworld cinema in Bradford took to his megaphone to announce: “We are very offended. We have the right not to be offended.” No you don’t, retorted Brendan O’Neill, addressing the protestor directly in his latest Spectator article: “None of us does. Muslims, Christians, Scientologists, trans activists, Remainers, Brexiteers, whatever: none of us has the right not to be offended. Occasionally feeling offended is the price we pay for living in a free society.”

One video-clip on the internet appeared to show a cinema manager in Sheffield using a protestor’s megaphone (where do protestors buy all these megaphones?) to inform the gathered crowd that the film had been withdrawn from the schedule. “Allahu Akbar!” they yelled in victory. Brendan O’Neill described this as one of the most disturbing video clips he’d seen this year. It’s hard to disagree. “It wasn’t our decision to show it and we will not be showing it again”, the cinema manager can be heard to say at one point, and the fact that as he’s uttering those words he’s hemmed in on all sides by joyous protestors, with someone’s hand gripping his shoulder and another person’s arm placed around his back, lends the video an air of “solicitous menace” that’s not normally encountered in this country outside the pages of a Franz Kafka novel.

The illiberalism of the protesters was shocking enough; but for many commentators it was the surrender they managed to extract so effortlessly from large, national cinema chains that ought to worry anyone concerned about freedom of speech. Cineworld was the first to cave to the demands of this small group of religious extremists, cancelling all showings of the film and depriving the vast majority of its customers of their right to see the film for themselves and make up their own minds about it. “An act of pathetic cowardice,” was how Toby Young described it to the Epoch Times. “Cineworld should not allow an angry mob to dictate what films it shows in its cinemas,” he added. (Baroness Claire Fox made a similar point on GB News.)

In his capacity as FSU General Secretary, Toby has now written to the CEO of Cineworld, Moshe Greidinger, asking him to reconsider his decision to cancel all showings of the film. As Toby points out, the company’s decision to capitulate to the will of these protestors sets a dangerous precedent. Appeasement of this kind is all too likely to “encourage more extremist groups to make unreasonable demands, backed up with menacing protests” until, in the end, “the sectarian views of tiny, unrepresentative, hard-line groups will be imposed ever more widely on the rest of us”. If the right to free speech is not vigorously defended by all of us, he tells Greidinger, it “will simply wither and die”.

You can read the letter in full here. Over the next few weeks, the FSU will also be writing separately to police chief constables in Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield asking for their assurance that cinemas that wish to show the film will be able to do so, with their staff and customers properly protected.

DCMS sub-committee on the Online Safety Bill hears free speech concerns

Writing for ConHome earlier this week, the Minister for Technology and the Digital Economy, Chris Philp, gave an upbeat assessment of the Online Safety Bill. Rather than endanger freedom of speech, he argued, it would actually enhance it.

It’s certainly true that there have been some improvements in the Government’s plans since the original White Paper of 2019. Nonetheless, and as City AM reported, a rather more circumspect view emerged from this week’s DCMS sub-committee meeting on the Bill. (You can watch the session here and some of the contributions from policy makers, academics and online safety experts have been clipped and are available on the FSU’s Twitter account here and here.)

“Is the OSB damaging to freedom of speech?” asked the Committee Chairman, Julian Knight MP, kicking the debate off. “As it’s currently written, it could be,” responded Ellen Judson, lead researcher at Demos. Ellen’s concern was the “heavy focus” on automated content moderation as the “primary solution” when it comes to the removal of ‘harmful’ content, and the related possibility that the Bill could end up “incentivising over-moderation” of content that, while perfectly legal, would likely breach a company’s terms and conditions.

The FSU shares Demos’s concern. Given that online providers will risk fines and other sanctions from Ofcom if they don’t remove “legal but harmful” content, but will be at minimal risk of punishment for failing to comply with the duty to “have regard” for freedom of speech, there’s a strong bias towards removal baked into the Bill’s regulatory structure. Our view is that if it isn’t kicked into the long grass, which looks unlikely, its free speech clauses need to be strengthened. In particular, we’ve argued for the imposition of two additional duties on providers: to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is not unduly infringed by excessive measures taken in pursuit of the duties of care under the Bill; and to prepare and publish a policy setting out how they will comply with this duty.

These amendments would mean providers had to be careful not to infringe freedom of expression while complying with the Bill’s various duties to protect users from ‘harm’. As it stands, the Bill will encourage an ‘if in doubt, remove’ approach, which would be inimical to freedom of expression.

The FSU has been tracking the legislation’s progress through Parliament and has just submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Bill Committee. You can find our briefings here and our most recent press release about the Bill here.

Register now for the FSU’s June speakeasy with Dr Joanna Williams

Register now to receive the Zoom link for our next Online Speakeasy on Wednesday 15th June at 6.30pm BST, when the FSU’s Toby Young will be joined by academic and author Dr Joanna Williams. Joanna’s book, How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason, has been described as “fearless” and “forensic”. She points out that the “authoritarian cult of woke isn’t as powerful as it seems”.

As a special offer for FSU members, Hewson Books, the independent London bookshop, has kindly agreed to provide signed copies of Joanna’s new book to those who purchase it via this special page.

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may have already come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise with each other and share their views without having to look over their shoulders. During late June and July, a series of Regional Speakeasies will be happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford. You can check out the dates of these in the new Events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members shortly. Members are welcome to bring guests, particularly those likely to join the FSU!

FSU Comedy Night on 29th June – get your tickets here!

London members, many of whom came to our packed meet-up in March, are encouraged to get tickets to our Summer Special Comedy Night on Wednesday 29th June, where there will be plenty of opportunities to meet other members, as well as the FSU’s staff. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby – who you can watch talking about the event here. Dominic will be performing a special set of comedy hits with his band the Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be joined by his legendary friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and Tom Mones. As this event is also a fund-raiser it is open to the public – get your tickets here.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – the FSU’s amendments

Days after he was hounded off a university campus by transactivists, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi reflected on his experience for the Mail on Sunday. “Free speech has to win,” he declared. “When exercising our fundamental right to free speech, we must allow others to do the same – and when we disagree, which will be often, we must respectfully and courteously debate the other side.” The fact that activists had “clearly intended to stop my speech and shut down the discussion” left Zahawi “more convinced than ever” that the crushing of free speech needs to be countered. “Put simply,” he said, “sometimes we must hear and consider points of view that we disagree with.” That is why “the Government is protecting these essential rights with our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill for universities”.

That Bill aims to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in English universities by imposing more robust legal duties on higher education providers. These include the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the free speech of academic staff, non-academic staff, students and visitors to universities, as well as to actively promote freedom of speech.

The Bill goes to Report stage on 13th June, at which point MPs will be given an opportunity, on the floor of the House, to consider further amendments. In preparation, this week the Government published the amendments it’s intending to make to the Bill, including two put forward by the FSU.

The first of these is to remove the caveat that academics should only be entitled to these new, stronger protections if they’re writing or speaking “within their field of expertise”. This is something the FSU has been campaigning for since academics should be free to share and discuss ideas across a wide range of issues, not just in their specific “field of expertise”.

The second amendment – also accepted by the Government – is to extend the Bill’s scope to encompass student unions. This means they’ll also be obliged to uphold the new, more robust duties to protect free speech and, hopefully, will find it harder to no-platform controversial speakers.

The FSU believe the Bill cannot be passed too soon. As Toby pointed out in the Mail last week, we “get about a dozen requests for help a week from university students or academics who’ve got into trouble for exercising their lawful right to free speech”. We’ve intervened in hundreds of cases and in almost every one of those the individuals would have been in a stronger position had the new law been in place. Our briefing on the Bill can be found here. No doubt there will be naysayers coming to the fore as the Bill gets closer to the statue book, so if you want to see the FSU’s rebuttal of some of the most common criticisms, our briefing should help.

Professor Steven Greer interviewed by Bristol Free Speech Society

Bristol University’s Free Speech Society recently caught up with Steven Greer, Professor of Law at the University’s Law School, for a chat about the way militant minorities are increasingly intent on censoring the content of university courses and silencing any opinions they disagree with.

It was a great conversation, not least because Professor Greer was able to speak from personal experience. Back in October 2020, the University of Bristol Islamic Society (BRISOC) lodged a formal complaint against Professor Greer, claiming that one of his modules – ‘Islam, China and the Far East’ – was “Islamophobic”. Four months later, BRISOC launched a public campaign against Professor Greer, demanding the scrapping of that module. In July 2021, a Bristol University enquiry exonerated him, a verdict unanimously upheld on appeal in October 2021. However, at the start of the 2021-22 term the Law School removed Greer’s module from its syllabus to ensure “Muslim students do not feel that their religion is being singled out or in any way othered by the class material”.

“Outrageous” was FSU General Secretary Toby Young’s verdict at the time in the Mail on Sunday. “By kowtowing to the Islamic Society, the university has issued a gold-embossed invitation to activists to submit vexatious complaints about its employees.”

You can watch the interview in full here.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Transactivists “hound” the Education Secretary at the University of Warwick

FSU General Secretary, Toby Young, was quoted in the Telegraph this week warning that the “intolerant atmosphere on Britain’s campuses is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China”. Small wonder, then, that the FSU “get about a dozen requests for help a week from university students or academics who’ve got into trouble for exercising their lawful right to free speech”.

As if to demonstrate the growing tendency in universities not to argue with positions but to attack the persons who hold them, a few days later the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, was “hounded” – as both the Telegraph and the Mail put it – by transactivists during a talk he was giving to Warwick University’s Conservative Association. Why? Because according to the protestors, Zahawi is not only “Tory scum” but a “transphobe” to boot. The latter claim is based on the fact that Zahawi was once asked for a definition of a ‘woman’ and promptly responded that “a woman is an adult human female. Biology was my favourite subject at school. It’s a straightforward answer.” That might appear an uncontentious statement of fact, but not in the world according to radical transactivists, where apparently it constitutes a “transphobic dog-whistle” (The Metro). Protestors also appear to have taken issue with Zahawi’s strident defence of Kathleen Stock, the philosophy professor, during the period last year when she was targeted by transactivists at Sussex University (the Telegraph).

The issue for the FSU in all of this is not whether we agree with the political beliefs espoused by any particular group of activists, but whether the tactics they adopt while campaigning on the basis of those beliefs lead to the curtailment (or denial) of the speech of others. It’s an important point, and one the Education Secretary himself seems keen to uphold. In response to an exclusive from Guido Fawkes that the son of Labour politician Yvette Cooper led the protests at the event, Zahawi took to Twitter to point out that this student’s “right to free speech is vital too”, and that he “made a reasonable point about how schools can help children” which “he was happy to debate”.

None of the other protestors were mentioned, no doubt because the vast majority of them seemed less inclined to debate Zahawi in the way Yvette Cooper’s son had. As the Mail reported, no sooner had Warwick University’s Conservative Society invited Mr Zahawi to campus, than the Warwick Student Union’s society for “Lesbian, Gay, Bi+, Trans, Undefined and Asexual/Aromantic” people began its attempts to have him no-platformed, complaining that he “played a significant role in institutionalised transphobia” and that his presence on campus would “clearly violate Student Union by-laws on equality and diversity”.

On the evening of the talk, dozens of protestors gathered outside the lecture hall where Mr Zahawi was speaking to chant “Tory Scum!”, bang on the doors, and, according to footage seen by the Daily Mail, blast music from a loudspeaker at such volume that it became difficult for those inside the meeting to hear each other. Incidentally, the footage posted by the protestors had been captioned “Sorry?? We cant [sic] really hear you!”, which suggests that some of these student activists might more productively have spent the evening brushing up on their grammar and punctuation in the library. In the end, the Secretary of State had to be ushered away by security guards as he was pursued by activists brandishing rainbow flags.

Chasing your opponents away while denouncing them as “Scum!” was, as Ross Clark noted for the Telegraph, rather an odd way for these protestors to challenge what they’d been describing as “hate”. Ross is all for the right to protest, but he does go on to ask the following, thought-provoking question: would university authorities have taken such a back seat had these, say, been Brexiteer students who verbally assaulted an EU official who had been invited to give a talk? Clark notes with interest that in response to an enquiry from the Telegraph, Warwick declined to comment. His broader point, though, is that in post-Brexit Britain what is considered to be “hatred” by the Right is all too often glossed as mere “activism” when committed by the Left. Universities must avoid getting drawn down this line of thinking, he argues: “Mob-style shouting on the Left must never be excused on the grounds that the perpetrators supposedly have their hearts in the right place.”

Speakeasy with Dr Joanna Williams – book your place now!

Following the FSU’s online Speakeasy with Douglas Murray on Wednesday 25 May ­– our best attended Speakeasy to date – our next one will be on Wednesday 15 June at 6:30pm BST. General Secretary Toby Young will be joined by Dr Joanna Williams to discuss her new book: How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. Joanna is one of Britain’s sharpest and most eloquent writers on the phenomenon of ‘woke’. In How Woke Won, she forensically exposes how the ‘woke’ culture war has exploded into our schools, workplaces, media and politics – and why we need to fight back against this threat. Please register here to receive the Zoom link. 

FSU Summer Comedy Night – tickets available now!

FSU members are warmly invited to round up their family and friends for the FSU comedy night on Wednesday 29 June. This extravaganza of comedy and music is being held in association with Comedy Unleashed – the home of free-thinking comedy. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby, and Dominic will also be performing a special set of comedy hits, old and new, with his amazing band The Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner and ubermeister of lounge, Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be bringing the glamour of Das Vegas to the stage with his legendary friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and TomMones. Book your tickets here to join the fun with the whole FSU team and 100s of FSU members. 

Pronouns in the classroom – a request for information from our members

Over in the US, the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR) has written to the principal of a Middle School in Wisconsin in response to an ‘incident report’ submitted through their transparency website (which you can access here). The details are scarcely believable:

A Wisconsin school district has filed sexual harassment complaints against three middle schoolers for calling a classmate by a wrong pronoun. The school district in Kiel has charged the three eight-graders at the Kiel Middle School with sexual harassment after an incident in April in which the students refused to use “they” to refer to a classmate who had switched pronouns a month before the alleged incident, according to reports.

As FAIR concede, “it may be polite for students to use the preferred pronouns of their classmates”, but in the US, “punishing them if they do not” is to “disregard their First Amendment rights”. In “our system”, they point out, “students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate”.  

As these references to the First Amendment and “our system” suggest, FAIR’s concern is to contextualise and assess these claims in respect of the United States’ legal and constitutional system. But the allegation they’re addressing has got the FSU thinking about whether similar issues might be starting to emerge in the UK. So with that in mind we’d like to ask our members if any of their children (or indeed grandchildren) are being asked to use the preferred gender pronouns of their trans classmates and threatened with penalties for not doing so. We think that would be unlawful.

Helsinki Court of Appeals announces Päivi Räsänen case will be reopened

On 31 May, the Helsinki Court of Appeals in Finland accepted the complaint of the Finnish prosecutor and will reopen the Päivi Räsänen case, according to Evangelical Focus. Räsänen is a Member of the Finnish Parliament, Chair of the Christian Democrats in the Parliament of Finland, and a former Interior Minister (2011-2015). The case in question concerns a critical comment she made about the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) participation in the Helsinki Pride event.

The case against Räsänen began back in June 2019 after she posted a photo of Romans 1:24–27 from the New Testament that described same-sex relationships as “shameful”. In the attached post, she criticised the Lutheran Church’s decision to become an official partner of Helsinki Pride 2019: “How can the church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?”

The Finnish Police investigated Räsänen, with the General Prosecutor of Finland subsequently bringing the politician to court over three separate times. In each case, she was accused of breaking Chapter 10 of the Finnish Penal Code, which prohibits “incitement to hatred” against homosexuals.

In March this year, however, the judges of the District Court of Helsinki in Finland unanimously dismissed the charges. At the time, Räsänen described herself as grateful for having had the chance to stand up for freedom of speech, which is an essential right in a democratic country and appreciative of the fact that the Court recognized in its ruling the importance of free speech. Noting that the prosecutor intended to appeal she underlined that she was “prepared to defend freedom of expression and religion at all necessary levels of justice, even, if necessary, before the European Court of Human Rights”.

It may well now come to that. Responding to the news that the prosecutor is going to appeal the judgement, Räsänen suggested that “the extension of the trial will allow the establishment of legal precedent on freedom of expression and religion from even a higher court. This would then serve as a legal guide regarding any similar charges in the future”.

Sources in Finland say the process will not begin before the autumn and could start as late as 2023.

The return of NCHIs?

At the weekend, the Mail reported that the Home Office is in the process of drawing up a new hate crime strategy, which aims to “increase the reporting of all forms of hate crime, including those relating to gender identity”. This would see “perpetrators accused of ‘non-crime hate incidents’” (or NCHIs). Both the Mail and LBC argued that because this new strategy involves encouraging more people to complain to police about anti-trans hate crimes, it could end up criminalising comedians such as Ricky Gervais. It’s certainly possible, but in the FSU’s experience, it’s almost always people who aren’t famous, people who don’t have famous friends to fight their corner, who end up falling foul of NCHIs.

We’ve been pointing out for a long time now that NCHIs are a sinister form of thought-policing. According to the College of Policing (CoP) guidelines drawn up in 2014, NCHIs are any non-criminal act of hostility towards someone with a ‘protected’ characteristic that’s perceived to be motivated by hatred of that characteristic. They can be reported by the victim or by anyone who witnessed the incident and are recorded irrespective of whether there is any objective evidence to identify the hate element. NCHIs also show up on advanced criminal records checks, which can obviously prevent people getting jobs.

So why is it, asked Fraser Myers for Spiked, that the police just can’t seem to wean themselves off these things? It’s a good question. For a while, it seemed like there was light at the end of the tunnel. Back in 2018, for instance, Sarah Thornton, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said the police should “solve more burglaries and bear down on violence before we make more records of incidents that are not crimes”. Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the CoP’s guidance telling forces to always record incidents believed to be “motivated by a hostility or prejudice against a person” as NCHIs violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court of Appeal then told the CoP to draw up more explicit safeguards to protect free speech, with Home Secretary Priti Patel subsequently writing to the body to urge it to wipe all NCHIs from people’s records and publish revised hate crime guidance by the end of May 2022.

Not only has that May deadline now come and gone, but as Sarah Phillimore, a barrister from Fair Cop argued this week, the Home Office’s latest plans “suggest either that the Government is not paying attention, or that they have contempt for the Court of Appeal”. Either way, she felt it was “astonishing that legislators are planning to expand the discredited and unlawful practice of recording NCHIs”.

Is there anything on the positive side of the ledger when it comes to NCHIs? The Mail says that “those in favour of the proposals which would see ‘perpetrators’ accused of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ hope people will feel better protected from harm”. Although the Mail decides to leave its readers to reflect for themselves on the type of person it would take to think like that, over in the Express former Home Secretary Anne Widdicombe isn’t so reticent. “Inevitably”, she thunders at one point, “the justification for this insidious attempt to create a Big Brother society is that people will feel protected”. But “how can you feel protected if you are liable to a police record without due process? Or does it not matter how vulnerable you feel if you are not one of a minority group with protected characteristics?” They’re what you might call rhetorical questions. 

If you’d like to know more, the FSU’s detailed briefing on NCHIs can be accessed here. If you’d like a quick, five-minute read on the topic, our FAQs on NCHIs is here.

Publishers scared of cancel culture made Anthony Horowitz rewrite his latest book

Margaret Atwood made the headlines this week, firing a flamethrower at a specially made, unburnable copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The gesture’s political connotations weren’t difficult to discern. “Across the United States and around the world”, the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, explained in an accompanying statement, “books are being challenged, banned and even burned. So we created a special edition of a book that’s been challenged and banned for decades.”

Yet literary censorship is as much about the suppression of ideas prior to publication as it is about their destruction once they’ve been bound and are on peoples’ shelves, desks and coffee tables. Only this week, for instance, renowned author Anthony Horowitz was left “shocked” by notes from his publisher “about things which I could or couldn’t say” (Telegraph). He went on to reveal that they’d told him to rewrite his latest children’s book, Where Seagulls Dare: A Diamond Brothers Case, because there was a concern that jokes related to “the usual -isms” could be “misconstrued in the present climate”.

The process required a “fairly extensive” edit and, perhaps unsurprisingly, left him in a reflective mood. According to the Mail, he told an audience at the Hay Festival this week that “I’m very, very scared by what you’re calling cancel culture. I think what’s happening to writers is extremely dangerous: where certain words are hidden, where certain thoughts are not allowed any more, certain activities obviously to do with gender or to do with ethnicity.” Writers, he added, must “lead the agenda and not be cowed by it. You must be free to write what you want, and to express the views you want to express without the world falling in on you.”

What were the “usual -isms” his publishers had asked him to remove? He didn’t say, although the (presumably now revised) blurb for the book reads as follows:

Private investigators Tim and Nick Diamond haven’t had a case for three months and are down to their last cornflake. So when a glamorous woman comes into their office offering them a pile of cash to find her missing father, they think Christmas had come – only it turns out they’re the turkeys! Before they know it, they are caught up in a case involving bike-riding hitmen, super hackers and a sinister far-right organisation, the White Crusaders.

Whatever the “usual -isms” Horowitz’s publishers were fretting over, it’s good to see they were entirely relaxed about the possibility of Horowitz’s young, impressionable readers encountering right-wing politics as the preserve of bad guys either too stupid to think through the cultural and political implications of their organisation’s branding, or too racist to care. Quite right too. As Horowitz himself puts it, authors shouldn’t have to work in a “culture of fear”; a culture that “limits your ability to express the views that you want to express”, whether those views involve “the usual -isms”, characters like the “White Crusaders”, or whatever else.

Writing about Horowitz’s revelations for Spiked, the author Nick Tyrone suggests that when publishers throw their weight about, it’s almost always the cash nexus – and not woke indoctrination – that’s the motivating factor: “It’s as if they think one of their books getting called bad names online will lead to them going out of business in short order.” What’s so strange about that – and it really is when you think about it – is that “every other form of publishing is almost completely powered by controversy”.

Still, whatever their motivations, the fact that publishers do now engage fairly routinely in acts of literary censorship – what the author Lionel Shriver describes as a “quasi-Soviet phenomenon” – is something that troubles Tyrone. Literature is “extremely important to Western culture”, and it is primarily through the novel that “the complexities of human thought and feeling have been communicated over the past several centuries”. It’s true, as he concedes, that “those ideas are often difficult” – but isn’t the fact that they’re problematic precisely why they “need delving into, not shoving away”?

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Academic freedom and the FSU’s defence of Dr Abhijit Sarkar

The Times Higher Education ran a story about Professor Nigel Biggar, the FSU’s Chairman, defending academic free speech at Taking the Politics out of University Teaching, an event hosted by the thinktank Politeia. “There was,” Nigel said, “a rising tendency in universities not to argue with positions but to attack the persons who hold them, smearing them as racist or white supremacist, or transphobic, and clamouring that their research be shut down, and that they be disciplined or even dismissed” – a tendency all too obviously exemplified this week by what Quillette described as Princeton University’s “disgraceful” decision to fire Professor Joshua Katz. What would help dampen this tendency, Nigel argued, was “a revision of the Equality Act 2010, so that it cannot be argued, normally, that [people holding] a point of view you disagree with constitutes a form of harassment”.

The fact that ideologically motivated academics are policing the thoughts and actions of colleagues and students is bad enough, but as Dr Arif Ahmed pointed out in Spiked, universities’ attempts to win the approval of bodies like Advance HE are having a similarly ‘chilling’ effect on academic freedom and free speech. For a university to win Advance HE’s Athena SWAN award, for instance, it must show commitment to certain ‘principles’. Back in 2015, those principles included “tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people”. Now, however, an institution must agree to “fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine their own gender identity”. Is it the job of a university to “foster collective understanding” about the rightness of a particular ideological position, or to facilitate open debate? To Arif, a member of the FSU’s Advisory Council, this looks uncomfortably like a move away from tackling discrimination and into the realm of thought policing.

Similar issues were raised during Parliament’s ‘Freedom of Speech in Education’ debate this week, with Sir John Hayes calling for a review of universities’ free speech policies prior to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reaching the statue book. The review was necessary, he argued, because “universities continue to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above free speech’s ability to inspire, enthral and to move the academic agenda forward”. While making his case, Sir John cited the “sad, but by no means exceptional” case of FSU member Dr Abhijit Sarkar. The FSU defended Sarkar following Oxford University’s failure to protect his academic freedom. We’re now helping a group of senior academics petition Oxford to reform its policies and protect free speech and academic freedom in accordance with law.

The FSU endorses Sir John’s demand that universities get their policies in order now, before the Bill becomes law. Our view is that the Bill cannot be passed too soon (although we’d like to see some amendments to strengthen its free speech protections). We’ve intervened in many cases involving students or academics, and in almost every instance those individuals would have been in a stronger position had the new law been in place. Our briefing on the Bill can be found here.

Speakeasy with Dr Joanna Williams – book your place now!

Following the FSU’s successful online event with Douglas Murray on Wednesday, our next Speakeasy will be on Wednesday 15 June, 6:30pm BST. General Secretary Toby Young will be joined by the academic and author Dr Joanna Williams to discuss her new book: How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. Joanna is one of Britain’s sharpest and most eloquent writers on the phenomenon of ‘woke’. In How Woke Won, she forensically exposes how the ‘woke’ culture war has exploded into our schools, workplaces, media and politics – and why we need to fight back against this threat to our values and freedoms. Please register here to receive the Zoom link. 

Academic removed from an academic event for “disruptive” questions

Dr Jon Pike is a member of the FSU. He’s also a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University. His specialism is the philosophy and ethics of sport, and he’s also a world-leading expert in issues surrounding transgender inclusion in women’s sport. On 16 May 2022 Dr Pike attended an online event at Loughborough University entitled IAS Festival of Ideas: Transitions – Festival and Book Launch Gender Diversity and Sport: Interdisciplinary perspectives on increasing inclusivity. This topic was well within the parameters of his research and expertise, but he was removed from the event for asking questions about the fairness of allowing biological men to compete against women athletes. Dr Pike later received a terse email from Loughborough University’s Institute of Advanced Studies informing him that his removal had been necessary “due to the disruptive nature of [his] questioning”. The Free Speech Union has written to Loughborough University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Nick Jennings, to express its concern. We consider this to be a failure of the University to uphold its obligations to uphold free speech on campus, and an act of discrimination against Dr Pike on the grounds of his gender critical beliefs. The full text of the FSU’s letter is available here.

The Living Freedom Summer School open for applications until Sunday 29 May 

The applications deadline for the Living Freedom Summer School taking place in London this summer is Sunday 29 May. Organised in partnership with the Free Speech Champions project, the Summer School is a fantastic opportunity for young, critical thinkers to meet one another and debate the key freedom issues of our times. The full programme is now available. Speakers include the FSU’s own Toby Young and Karolien Celie, former cop and free speech campaigner Harry Miller, James Esses, writer and campaigner Caroline ffiske, Professor Frank Furedi, journalist Bruno Waterfield, Professor Arif Ahmed, writer Ella Whelan, author Dr Joanna Williams, journalist and historian Dr Zoe Strimpel… and many more.

The FSU’s schedule of events this summer

We have a packed schedule of events – online and in-person – over the coming months. You can keep up to date and check what’s going on at a glance thanks to our website’s brand new Events page. As most of our events are members-only, you won’t be able to book tickets from that public page, but our Events team will be sending out regular emails with full details and booking links, so do keep an eye out for them. If you don’t receive those emails, please let us know and we’ll make sure you’re on the mailing list (and if you’re on the mailing list and you still aren’t receiving those emails, then please check your junk mail inbox).

FSU Summer Comedy Night – tickets available now!

FSU members are warmly invited to round up their family and friends for the FSU Summer Special on Wednesday 29 June. This one night only extravaganza of comedy and music is being held in association with Comedy Unleashed – the home of free-thinking comedy. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby, and Dominic will also be performing a special set of comedy hits, old and new, with his amazing band The Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner and ubermeister of lounge, Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra… flamboyantly executed”. Frank will be bringing the glamour of Das Vegas to the stage with his legendary friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and TomMones. Book your tickets here to join the fun with the whole FSU team and 100s of FSU members. 

Free Speech Champions launch the new issue of TNT

The Free Speech Champions are going from strength to strength. The organisation packed out a London pub last Saturday to launch the second issue of their magazine The New Taboo, which aims to showcase a wide array of exciting new voices and promote free thinking for a new generation. You can read it online here or pick up a print copy at any of the FSU’s forthcoming events. Congratulations to all the contributors and especially to editor Daniel J Sharp and designer Izzi Jones!

The Parliamentary return of the Online Safety Bill

The Online Safety Bill, which has reached the Committee stage of its journey through Parliament, is attracting more and more criticism. The Economist warned of its potential to “change the face of the internet” and “incentivise” tech firms to censor their users en masse. Writing for The Critic, Toby Young agreed, describing the Bill as a “censors’ charter” and “the most serious threat to free speech since the proposal to force state regulation on the press in the aftermath of Leveson”.

Notoriously, the bill will force companies to remove “legal but harmful” content from their platforms. The fact that the largest firms could be fined up to 10% of their annual global turnover for failing to do so will inevitably create an incentive to remove anything remotely contentious. Might that have a chilling effect on free speech? Not according to Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State at DCMS. She believes the bill will strike a blow for freedom of expression. In his capacity as FSU General Secretary, Toby has met with DCMS ministers and officials who’ve also sought to reassure him that there’s nothing in the Bill requiring social media companies to remove “legal but harmful” content. The Cabinet minister responsible for the Bill, Chris Philp, even authored a piece for The Times this week in which the same claim appeared: “There is”, he wrote, “no requirement in the Bill at all to censor legal content.”

Toby describes this as a “sleight of hand”. The bill will “require the Secretary of State to bring forward secondary legislation in the form of a statutory instrument to identify ‘priority’ harms that providers will be under a particular obligation to protect us from”, he writes. So it will be the secondary legislation, and not the Bill per se, that identifies “legal but harmful” content. In other words, although the Bill won’t specify the “legal but harmful” subject matter that social media companies need to remove, it will nonetheless create a general obligation to remove it once it has been identified in a statutory instrument.

What worries Toby is that the press release accompanying the Bill cites “harassment” as an example of the type of “legal but harmful” content that will be included in the statutory instrument. Not that he’s a harassment enthusiast, of course; it’s just that it isn’t difficult to “imagine Parliament approving this secondary legislation, and activist groups then petitioning platforms to remove any content they find disagreeable on the grounds that it amounts to ‘harassment’ of the victims they claim to be representing”.

At this late stage, our “best hope” for averting this danger is to “persuade the Government to ditch the worst parts of the Bill – like the ‘legal but harmful’ stuff — and try to improve the rest as it passes through Parliament”, he says. The FSU currently has nine amendments it’s hoping to push through, and over the coming weeks we’re looking forward to engaging with allies in both houses of Parliament to ensure that the final version of the Bill better protects online freedom of speech.

The ‘woke’ capture of relationships and sex education

During Parliament’s ‘Political impartiality in schools’ debate this week, Gareth Bacon asked the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, whether he was concerned that “children were at risk of being indoctrinated by political activists masquerading as teachers?” It was a timely question. As the Mail reported this week, schools are increasingly outsourcing Relationships and Sex Education classes to “unregulated providers pushing a ‘woke’ agenda”. In response to Bacon’s question, Zahawi referenced the “clear, comprehensive guidance” his Department had published to help schools tackle these “sensitive issues”. But is this guidance being observed? Not according to The Critic’s Shonagh Dillon. “In reality”, she argued, “many RSE providers are not following the guidelines, and schools are not asking the questions they should of the material being used.” That was why, as she went on to point out, RSE provision had become “a wild west of competing providers, each vying to be more ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ than their rivals, with little regard for safeguarding or child development”. Dillon’s research into RSE provision uncovered teaching content aimed at children and teenagers that promoted “bondage and discipline + sadism and masochism” (BDSM), explained what a swinger was and celebrated “sex toy day” with hyperlinks to sites selling toys like “anal training sets” (or ‘butt plugs’, as they’re known in the porn industry). One provider had posters featuring friendly aliens that asked children “which pronouns do you want to use?” Another posted publicly accessible images to its Instagram account that declared: “Virginity benefits no one.”

Just as concerning from a free speech perspective was the Mail’s assertion that the content of lessons delivered by these providers is in some cases being obscured from parents. A child’s primary school in Lambeth, South London, for example, reportedly signed a contract with an external provider agreeing not to distribute teaching materials to parents. A mother who subsequently became worried about the content of the course – which allegedly involved a mixed sex group of 10 year-olds discussing masturbation in pairs – sent the school a freedom of information request, only to be informed that, “after consultation with both [the provider] and legal specialists, [the school] were unable to allow her to see the course materials”. 

Ricky Gervais vs transactivists: seconds out, round one…

The outrage over Ricky Gervais’s new stand-up special for Netflix was, as Ella Whelan pointed out in the Telegraph, “all too predictable”. Particular fury seems to have been roused by a section in which Gervais mocked trans activists. US LGBTQ rights group Glaad denounced the jokes as “dangerous”, the National Centre for Transgender Equality in the US condemned them as “dehumanising” and the Director of Communications at Stonewall, Robbie de Santos, felt it was “disappointing that Ricky has once again chosen to use his global platform to make fun of trans people – punching down is never funny”. In the new woke lexicon, this is apparently the greatest crime a modern comedian can commit – to “punch down” is to make fun of any person or group who is in some way deemed to be less “privileged” than the comedian.

Writing in the Telegraph, Michael Deacon wondered whether critics like de Santos might not have misunderstood at whom Gervais’s jokes were targeted. The supposedly offensive part of the show, as Deacon explains, imagines an exchange between a woman and a hard line transactivist. The woman is nervous about someone with a penis entering the ladies’ loos. “What if he rapes me,” she asks. “What if she rapes you, you f***ing TERF whore!” the enraged activist screams back. To be sure, the joke is crude. “But it isn’t bullying,” points out Deacon. “It’s about bullying: the bullying of women by aggressive activists. The sort of activists who hounded Prof Kathleen Stock, the feminist academic, out of her job at Sussex University and constantly send threats and abuse to JK Rowling.” Surely, Deacon concludes, “by mocking bullies on behalf of their victims, Ricky Gervais is actually punching up, not down?”

Then again, was Gervais actually punching anyone at all? It’s certainly interesting the way de Santos’s woke metaphor forces us to personify humour’s intended targets, rendering the comedian either as an abuser (i.e., ‘punching down’) or a progressive campaigner (i.e., ‘punching up’). But what if Gervais was actually swinging away at an abstract set of ideas? His own explanation of his routine, offered to the Spectator, certainly suggests just such a possibility: “My target wasn’t trans folk, but trans activist ideology. I’ve always confronted dogma that oppresses people and limits freedom of expression.” The Spectator’s Debbie Hayton certainly felt it was time someone gave it the sort of satirical, no-holds barred thrashing that every other form of political ideology has had to endure since the European Enlightenment. And why not? “Trans activist ideology” is, after all, mixing it with the big boys now – capitalism, feminism, liberalism – having “shaken the foundations of our society and challenged the meaning of such fundamental concepts as men and women”.

Feliks Kwiatkowski fundraiser – show your support

Our member, Feliks Kwiatkowski, needs your help. After four decades as a barrister, his statutory regulator, the Bar Standards Board (“BSB”), brought charges against him for saying something a female colleague found offensive. Feliks was prosecuted, tried in public, fined and reprimanded. His unblemished professional reputation, built over 40 years, was tarnished. He seeks your help in appealing to the High Court, where his public hearing has been listed in the Administrative Court for 21 and 22 June this year. This case is about protecting the right to discuss and express views that some people may find offensive. It is about our right to disagree, which is being gradually eroded by professional bodies using their power as gate-keepers to suppress opinions that some people find disagreeable. This is suffocating freedom of speech in our free, or supposedly free, society. You can find out more and pledge your support here.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Is this the end of the thought police?

Police forces are “not the thought police”, declared the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Andy Cooke, on Monday 16 May: “Thoughts, unless they become actions, aren’t an offence.” (Daily Mail). It felt like a big moment in the fight for free speech and freedom of expression. Yet as The Spectator pointed out, the fact Cooke felt he had to make this intervention – in his first public interview, no less – reminds us just how bad things have become in English policing in recent years.

Cooke was appointed as HM Inspector of Constabulary in April 2021, and the role includes overseeing the assessment of forces and making recommendations for improvement. He’s clearly keen to push back – or at least be seen to be pushing back – against the rise of thought policing in our country. A good example of that type of policing would be the ‘non-crime hate incident’ (or NCHI). According to College of Policing guidelines drawn up in 2014, NCHIs are any non-criminal act of hostility towards someone with a ‘protected’ characteristic that’s perceived to be motivated by hatred of that characteristic. NCHIs can be reported by the victim or by anyone who witnessed the incident and are recorded irrespective of whether there is any objective evidence to identify the hate element. NCHIs can show up on advanced criminal records checks, preventing people getting jobs.

Thankfully, in December of last year, the former police officer Harry Miller won a landmark legal battle against the recording of NCHIs, and the College of Policing guidelines were ruled unlawful. The Free Speech Union was proud to back Harry in that case. Had he lost and had to pay the other side’s costs, we’d pledged to help with that bill. More recently, the Free Speech Union helped Kevin Mills. Two years ago, Kevin was handed an NCHI by the police after he refused to work with a customer who he feared wouldn’t pay the bill. The FSU intervened and Kent Police have now deleted the NCHI from his record.

There is, however, still plenty of work for the FSU to do. That’s because police forces in England and Wales aren’t required to notify someone if an NCHI is recorded against their name – and for all we know, the police are continuing to log ‘non crimes’ in the same way. Given that an estimated 250,000 NCHIs have been recorded since 2014, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of people still unwittingly carry one around on their records. If you’d like to know more, the FSU’s detailed briefing on NCHIs can be accessed here. If you’d like a quick, five-minute read on the topic, our FAQs on NCHIs is here.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the police are proudly boasting about continuing to investigate and record NCHIs. You can read what our General Secretary Toby Young had to say about that in the Belfast News Letter here.

Douglas Murray event – tickets still available!

Tickets are still available for our exclusive members only online speakeasy on Wednesday 25 May with bestselling author, award-winning political commentator and founding Director of the FSU Douglas Murray. Douglas will be discussing his latest book – The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (2022) – and answering questions from the audience. If you’re not yet a member, but would like to attend, then you still can – just click here to join the FSU and you’ll be able to secure your place at the event. Discount membership only costs £2.49 a month. If you’d like to know a bit more about Douglas’s work prior to the event, you can watch a clip of his appearance on Fox News earlier in the week here. Last month, Douglas also appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast. You can download that episode here.

James Esses fundraiser – show your support

The Times ran an interview this week with an FSU member, James Esses. As many of you will know, James is a former barrister who was (and still is) hoping to retrain as a therapist. Last year, he was expelled from his university course at the Metanoia Institute for launching a public petition that expressed reservations about encouraging children who identified as trans to undergo irreversible, life-changing medical procedures. A few weeks later, Childline removed him from his volunteer role as a counsellor on the same grounds. James’s worry is that all of this has “irretrievably damaged” his professional standing in a career that he “wanted to spend the rest of [his] life doing”. James is currently bringing a case against his university course provider for the discrimination he faced on account of his gender critical beliefs. You can show your support for James by donating to his CrowdJustice fundraiser.

Are algorithms currently the biggest threat to online free speech?

Social media platforms will often place ‘viewing constraints’ on content that automated moderation systems have flagged for breaching their ‘community standards’. One of the chief disadvantages of the viewing constraint, however, is that it commits social media companies to a contestable form of censorship. Where a platform asks its users to give explicit consent before viewing a piece of content, for example, it performs an action that is visible to the producers – and consumers – of that content.

According to an article in The Conversation, however, most user-to-user platforms are now capable of deciding what content gets seen, where, when and by whom, without that decision-making process ever becoming visible. It’s only in the past five years that this technique of ‘algorithmic audiencing’ has taken off, which perhaps explains why its interference with online free speech has so far largely gone unnoticed. To put the scale of that ‘interference’ into context, censorship techniques like viewing constraints are only adopted in cases of ‘inappropriate’ content (which makes up a tiny fraction of all content on any given platform), while algorithmic audiencing is now systematically applied to all content hosted by a platform.

As the article’s authors go on to explain, the fact that social media newsfeeds still appear to be ordered chronologically is not because they actually are, but because an algorithm is working away in the background to feed users particular types of content that ‘align’ with their known preferences and tastes. Alignment of that kind is important to social media companies because it keeps users engaged… and engagement can be monetised, “yielding up more user attention on targeted advertising, and more data collection opportunities”.

But is monetisation the only motivating force behind the rise of algorithmic audiencing?

Writing for the Spectator this week, Laura Dodsworth isn’t so sure. (An extended version of that article can be found over on her Substack page.) There are, she said, “growing concerns that the political and ideological preferences of the platforms may also be shaping what we see online”. Although there is a danger that the Online Safety Bill will stifle the freedom of the press once it passes into legislation, the fact is that news companies are “already self-censoring and serving up content that they know will work favourably with social media algorithms”. Perhaps it could be argued that the motivation in those cases is still largely financial – news companies do, after all, have to turn a profit. But what about the inner logic of the algorithms themselves – is it really all about ‘monetisation’, or might they have been built to pursue other goals too? It’s certainly curious that one social media producer Laura spoke to told her that “environmental protesting is ‘pushed upwards’ on Twitter – ‘XR content takes off like a rocket’ – while immigration and race are pushed down”.

The platforms themselves “insist that this isn’t the case, and there’s currently no way of knowing for sure”. Why? “Because the algorithms remain closely-guarded secrets”; secrets that – for now at least – remain beyond the purview of regulators. 

The Living Freedom Summer School is now open for applications!

The applications deadline of 29 May is fast approaching for the Living Freedom Summer School taking place in London this summer. Organised in partnership with the Free Speech Champions project, this is a fantastic opportunity for young, critical thinkers to meet one another and debate the key freedom issues of our times. The full programme is now available. Speakers include the FSU’s own Toby Young and Karolien Celie, former cop and free speech campaigner Harry Miller, James Esses, writer and campaigner Caroline ffiske, Professor Frank Furedi, journalist Bruno Waterfield, Professor Arif Ahmed, writer Ella Whelan, author Dr Joanna Williams, journalist and historian Dr Zoe Strimpel… and many more.

Is Netflix on the road to recovery after catching a “woke mind virus”? 

Back in April when Netflix reported that it had lost 200,000 subscribers during the first financial quarter of 2022 and expected to lose a further two million subscribers before June, Elon Musk was on hand to offer some valuable context: the problem, he explained, was that Netflix had been infected by a “woke mind virus” that was making the streaming service “unwatchable”. This week, however, Netflix launched what the Daily Mail described as “a crackdown on woke workers trying to silence artists such as Dave Chappelle”. As is well known, staff at the tech company had previously targeted the likes of comedian Chappelle for jokes about transgender people with the aim of cancelling him. Last year, some of the firm’s activists also staged protest walkouts, and, on one remarkable occasion, even tried to force their way into an executive meeting to make their feelings known. More recently, they published a letter with a list of demands that called on the company to “avoid future instances of platforming transphobia and hate speech, and to account for the harm we have caused”.

Long suffering Netflix bosses, Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, finally appear to have had enough. The Telegraph, GB News and Metro all ran stories about the streaming service circulating an all-staff ‘culture memo’ in which it was made clear that there would be no “censoring of specific artists or voices” no matter how ‘harmful’ certain employees considered the content in question. “Not everyone will like – or agree with – everything on our service,” it conceded, before emphasising Netflix’s commitment to “supporting the artistic expression of the creators we choose to work with, programming for a diversity of audiences and tastes, and letting viewers decide what’s appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices”.

Is Netflix finally starting to recover from its “woke mind virus” and fight back against millennial authoritarians? Writing for Spiked, Brendan O’Neill doesn’t think so. “Free speech warriors” should calm down, he said. One “positive sounding memo” isn’t enough to be getting excited about. Context (and a good memory) is everything, he adds, because in its past and present editorial choices, its HR actions, its sacking of the actor Frank Langella, “this hyper-woke streaming giant has constantly consolidated the post-traditional, post-reason cult of vulnerability that passes for ‘liberal’ thinking in the 21st century”.

Still, the memo ends rousingly enough for “free speech warriors” of simple tastes. Addressing the company’s hardcore of perennially disgruntled staff, it notes that “you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful”, before offering the following, tacit reminder that what they signed up for when they joined the company was contractual employment: “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, then Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

The “woke mind virus” at girls’ private schools

There was a shocking story in the Daily Mail earlier this week about a pupil at an independent girls school who was set upon by 60 of her classmates after she challenged a female member of the House of Lords who visited the school to talk about transphobia in Parliament. According to a teacher, the girl suggested to the speaker – a well-known political activist – that critical theory was taking precedence over biological reality when it came to defining women. The exchange was polite and respectful, but when the girl returned to the sixth form, she was surrounded by 60 pupils who screamed, swore and spat at her. She had a panic attack, ran to the toilets and collapsed. The school initially supported the girl, but in a volte-face that’s all too familiar it changed its mind and apologised to her classmates for failing to maintain a ‘safe space’. The girl was told that if she said anything ‘provocative’ in lessons she would be removed and forced to work in the library. After being repeatedly bullied, and with no pastoral support from the school, she eventually left. Needless to say, the school is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme.

Writing for website Transgender Trend, a teacher at the school who is sympathetic to the girl said: “It was probably somewhat naive of her not to realise that this is indeed an ideology and one with which you’re simply not allowed to disagree, however respectfully. To question its basic tenets is simply heresy and heretics in one way or another need to be exposed, attacked and gotten rid of. Even if they are such notable and seemingly untouchable figures as JK Rowling.”

JK Rowling later came out in support of the girl.

The Latest Free Speech Champions event is now available on YouTube

If you missed the FSC’s most recent live event, you can now catch-up with the video of ‘Self-Censorship on Campus: Comparing Notes Across the Pond’ over on the group’s YouTube channel (available here). On the night, Karolien Celie hosted four fascinating guest panellists: US students Emma Camp (who made waves recently with a New York Times article describing the culture of self-censorship on US campuses) and Stephen Wiecek, UK student Sam Bayliss (who has written previously on the topic of free speech for the Critic) and Canadian student Niloo Daliri. Along with a live audience, they explored the many ways in which students and academics are often pressured to avoid expressing their views, before then considering how they might work together to defend free speech and academic freedom.

Academics for Academic Freedom – University of Derby branch launch

Monday 16 May saw the launch of the University of Derby branch of Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF), with scholars from a variety of disciplines in attendance. The branch emerged spontaneously out of shared concerns regarding the growth of intellectual conformism within the UK academy, and the many recent attacks on public intellectuals such as, for instance, Professor Kathleen Stock. Derby is the second local AFAF branch to be formed this year, and others will be launching shortly. The branch hopes to work with the University to defend and promote free speech and academic freedom but has stressed that it will remain an independent voice. To find our more you can email the branch by clicking here, or following them on Twitter (@DerbyUniAFAF)

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Free speech-related parliamentary business in the year ahead

This year’s State Opening of Parliament was notable for the Prince of Wales making what most of us have come to regard simply – but in constitutional terms incorrectly – as “the Queen’s speech” on Her Majesty’s behalf, absent for only the third time in her 70-year reign. In total, the government announced 38 draft Bills that it will seek to introduce during the forthcoming, year-long parliamentary session. Once passed into legislation, at least three of those Bills will have a direct impact on free speech and freedom of expression in the UK.

How will that affect the work of the FSU? On the one hand, there is much to be cautiously optimistic about in the details of the government’s newly announced Bill of Rights and the carried over Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. On the other hand, the (similarly carried over) Online Safety Bill is still a cause of some concern – although the Bill makes welcome provision to protect children from illegal online content, it does not yet provide online freedom of speech and expression with the robust, meaningful protections that the FSU believe it needs.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

It isn’t difficult to understand how we got here, to a situation in which the government of the day could conclude that a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was a necessary piece of legislation in a liberal democracy. Free speech was mentioned in this government’s 2019 election manifesto, and universities (along with their constituent colleges and students’ unions) have long been identified as problem areas when it comes to cancel culture. More than one in four students ‘self-censor’ their opinions on campus, according to an opinion poll in 2020. Three in four politically right-leaning academics say they have to hide their political views on campus. Academics of all political persuasions fear that their careers will be ruined if they speak out against progressive ideas. Speaking appearances from public figures that students – and staff – deem to be “inappropriate” are either summarily cancelled or, as in the case of feminist campaigner Julie Bindel just this week, undertaken amidst verbal abuse and threats of physical violence.

The carried over Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is, as the Mail suggests, an attempt to end this censorious culture and encourage the genuine, open exchange of ideas at institutions for which such exchanges were created. As Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, explained in a recent article for ConHom, the Bill strengthens the duties on universities and Students’ Unions not only to protect, but also to promote free speech and academic freedom.

It’s true, of course, that the draft Bill has, as Lois McLatchie put it for The Critic this week, “languished in some corner of Westminster for the past six months because the government has had other priorities”. Will this be the year in which it finally passes into law? Wonk HE is sceptical: “In a packed legislative programme… it is entirely possible to see a world in which a Bill without buy-in from the Secretary of State fails to pass again.”

The FSU hopes not. Our view is that the Bill cannot be passed too soon (although we’d like to see some amendments to make its free speech protections even stronger). Since February 2020, we’ve intervened in well over 100 cases involving students or academics, and in almost every instance these individuals would have been in a stronger position had the new law been in place. We’ve written a briefing on the Bill (which you can find here) summarising the evidence showing why the Bill is necessary and rebutting some of the most common criticisms of it.

A UK Bill of Rights… and an Online Safety Bill?

Earlier this year, the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, reportedly told the Mail that democratic debate was slowly being “whittled away by wokery and political correctness”. He went on to promise reforms that would allow individuals to speak their minds. Free speech, he said, was to be given “trump card status in a whole range of areas”. It’s only now, however, with the government’s announcement of a new Bill of Rights that we get our first glimpse of the “reforms” Raab had in mind. The Mail describes this Bill of Rights pithily – and hopefully accurately – as a “landmark law to wage war on woke”. Understood in the longue dureé of modern British politics (where, as Harold Wilson put it, “a week is a long time”) it is effectively a replacement for New Labour’s controversial Human Rights Act, which embedded the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law more than 20 years ago.

That might seem like good news, but as the Spectator was quick to point out, the Bill won’t exist in a legislative vacuum. What, for instance, are we to make of its likely relationship to the Online Safety Bill? Is it “muddled” governmental thinking, the Spectator wonders, that led to Raab’s Bill of Rights being introduced – ostensibly to “enshrine freedom of speech” – just as an Online Safety Bill that will censor it is carried over from last year’s parliamentary session?

It’s a good question, not least because, as the FSU has been arguing for some time, the Online Safety Bill will undoubtedly lead to much greater online censorship. That’s because there’s a strong bias towards the removal of questionable-yet-perfectly-permissible-material built into the very architecture of the Bill. Under the proposed legislation, online providers will risk fines and other sanctions from Ofcom if they don’t remove material but will easily be able to avoid punishment for acting precipitously by demonstrating compliance with an extremely weak duty to “have regard” for free speech.

The relationship between the two Bills is therefore likely to prove rather difficult: the government’s avowed intention to protect adults from “legal but harmful” content will likely end up forcing Big Tech to clamp down on precisely the type of controversial speech that Raab’s Bill of Rights supposedly wants to protect. The Epoch Times made much the same point this week, citing the FSU’s own briefing papers. FSU General Secretary, Toby Young, also touched on these issues when he sat down to discuss the Online Safety Bill with the hosts of the TRIGGERnometry podcast, Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster (you can listen to that episode here).

You can find our free, open access briefings on the Online Safety Bill here, along with our most recent press release about the Bill here.

Douglas Murray speakeasy event on 25 May – book your place now!

Tickets are still available for our exclusive members only online speakeasy on Wednesday 25 May with bestselling author, award winning political commentator and founding Director of the FSU Douglas Murray. Douglas will discuss his latest book – The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (2022) – and answer questions from the audience. (In fact, if you pop over to the FSU’s YouTube channel you’ll see that Douglas has very kindly filmed a little piece to camera for us, inviting all FSU members to come along to the event – and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel)

As many of you will know, Douglas founded the Centre for Social Cohesion in 2007, which became part of the Henry Jackson Society, where he was Associate Director from 2011-18. In 2009, he was awarded the Charles Douglas-Home memorial prize for journalism. He is an associate editor of the Spectator, and a columnist for the New York Post and the Sun. Murray is also the bestselling author of seven books, including The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (2017), which was translated into more than 20 languages. His follow-up, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (2019) was named “Book of the Year” by both the Times and the Sunday Times. His latest book The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (2022) is currently in the New York Times Top 10 bestseller list, and recently went straight into the Sunday Times bestseller list at #1. This really is a unique opportunity to participate in an online conversation with the best-selling conservative author.

If you’re not yet a member, but would like to attend, then you still can – just click here to join us and you’ll be able to secure your place at the event. Discount membership only costs £2.49 a month.

Frances Widdowson’s crowd funder

On 20 December 2021, Professor Frances Widdowson was fired from her position as a Professor in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University in Canada for questioning ‘woke’ ideas. In the ‘story’ section of her FundRazr page, Professor Widdowson offers up a formidably academic yet piercingly accurate definition of ‘Woke-ism’ as “the colloquial term used for the postmodern tactic of reducing scientific objectivity to subjective authoritarianism, imposing its arbitrary interpretation of what is acceptable”. In her own case, the weapons of ‘woke-ism’ were university policies that turned intellectual disagreements into matters for investigation and disciplinary action. One of her Tweets satirizing a cartoon about “misgendering fatigue” was found by an outside investigator (hired by Mount Royal University) to have violated three policies and two laws – without, of course, any legal rationale being provided for those conclusions.

You can support Professor Widdowson in her fight for academic freedom here.

Living Freedom event now open for applications

The FSU is pleased to announce that Living Freedom 2022 is now open for applications. Living Freedom is devised and produced by Battle of Ideas (BOI) in association with the Free Speech Champions. The annual residential school takes place live and in person in central London, running from Thursday 30 June (6pm) to Saturday 2 July (7pm). Living Freedom will appeal to students and graduates as well as to young campaigners, academics, professionals and creatives. The school is for anyone aged 18-30 who values getting behind the headlines and relishes the chance to engage in an open-ended exploration of new ideas. Participants will attend expert talks, hear from critics and campaigners, and participate in debates, seminars and workshops – and with accommodation and meals provided, there’s plenty of time for socialising too. For information on the school and how to secure a place, click here. Should you need further information, please email the Living Freedom convenor, Alastair Donald here, or call +44 (0)20 7269 9233. And please do forward this email to friends, colleagues, contacts, students and anyone you think may be interested.

Jacob Mchangama’s appearance on Tangle’s latest podcast

Jacob Mchangama will be a familiar name to many of our members. The Danish lawyer, human-rights advocate, social commentator and founding director of Justitia, a Copenhagen-based think tank, was a guest speaker and panellist at the recent launch of the FSU’s Scottish office. You can hear Jacob discussing his latest book – Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media – on the latest episode of the podcast Tangle: Politics from all Sides. It’s a fascinating listen. The link is here.

Spiked’s new internship opportunity

Spiked has just announced details of its new internship programme. The online magazine will be offering paid, six-month placements to aspiring writers, editors, podcast producers and video makers. Successful applicants will work with Spiked for five days a week in the magazine’s London office. There are two tracks to choose from, an editorial internship (helping to produce articles, features and essays) or an audio/visual internship (helping to produce podcasts and videos.) You can find out how to apply for each track here.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Johnny the Walrus

An Amazon staffer worked himself up in to tears last week over the online retailer’s decision to sell Johnny and the Walrus, a children’s book that likens being transgender to pretending to be a walrus (Daily Mail). “I’m sorry, I want to preface this…”, the unidentified staffer says, wiping away tears in a video first obtained by Libs of TikTok. “This is really tough content.” The outburst occurred during a meeting in which senior managers discussed how to reassure staff that they understood just how “traumatic” the book’s rip-roaring success (250,000 worldwide sales, according to The Washington Examiner) had been for transgender individuals. “If you’re gender nonbinary,” the meeting’s host makes clear at one point, “this is super triggering … I would understand if you needed to leave.” 

The book’s blurb provides a clue as to the type of “traumatic” content the intrepid, cognitively resilient reader might find lurking beneath the triggering dust jacket:

Johnny is a little boy with a big imagination. One day he pretends to be a big scary dinosaur, the next day he’s a knight in shining armour or a playful puppy. But when the internet people find out Johnny likes to make-believe, he’s forced to make a decision between the little boy he is and the things he pretends to be – and he’s not allowed to change his mind.

And that’s it. The most you can say about it politically is that it pokes gentle, allegorical fun at some of the worst excesses of transactivism. But like all successful children’s stories, it’s pulled along by a deeper, underlying message, which is essentially that of self-acceptance.

To reduce the trauma the book is causing, Amazon removed Johnny and the Walrus from its various ‘children’s’ book categories and repositioned it in the ‘politics’ category. Ads for the book on Amazon are also now being rejected by the tech giant on the grounds that they’re not “appropriate for all audiences” – an umbrella term that’s typically used to justify banning advertising for books promoting incest and paedophilia, among other things. 

The Daily Signal points out that Amazon, as with every other Big Tech company, never censors, blocks, suppresses or re-categorises content that promotes woke ideas on the basis that it is in some vague, nebulous and never fully explained sort of way too “political” or “inappropriate” for its intended recipients.

For instance, Jacob’s Room to Choose is currently sat at #1,166 in Amazon’s ‘Children’s Prejudice and Racism’ bestseller list. Jacob, as the book’s blurb informs us, likes to wear dresses. One day he’s kicked out of the boys’ bathroom at school for wearing a dress. His friend Sophie, who doesn’t like to wear dresses, experiences something similar in the girls’ bathroom. “When their teacher finds out what happened,” the description goes on, “Jacob and Sophie, with the support [of] administration, lead change at their school as everyone discovers the many forms of gender expression and how to treat each other with respect.” Or how about Jack (Not Jackie), currently occupying position #335 in the ‘Children’s Siblings’ category? Susan has a little sister called Jackie, or at least, she does have a little sister called Jackie, until, one day, Susan realizes that her little sister “doesn’t like dresses or fairies – she likes ties and bugs!” Susan is confused. Disappointed, even. “Will she and her family be able to accept that Jackie identifies more as ‘Jack’?”, asks the Amazon description [spoiler alert: yes]. As if to emphasise just how apolitical the book’s contents really are, the blurb goes on to boast that it’s being “published in partnership with GLAAD [an American non-governmental media monitoring organisation, founded as a protest against defamatory coverage of gay and lesbian people] to accelerate LGBTQ inclusivity and acceptance”.

All great stuff, of course; but if Amazon feels that Johnny and the Walrus is too “political” for children, then what’s so different about these other two page-turners?

Who watches the watchmen?

In April, the Atlantic and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics co-hosted a three-day conference titled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy.” Topics of discussion included how and whether to regulate social-media companies; the pernicious influence of deep fakes and algorithms; the dangerous allure of conspiracy theories; national security; Russia; the storming of the Capitol on 6th January, 2021; and the implications of all this for the future of democracy. Our cousins over in The United States Free Speech Union have recently put out genuinely the most fascinating, thought-provoking summary of a conference you’re ever likely to see. It’s up on their Substack page under the title “Who will watch the watchmen?”

That’s a great title, by the way, isn’t it? So good, in fact, that we nipped in there first and used it for our recent report on the UK’s Online Safety Bill (on which the Times and the Critic both had useful pieces this week). You can find our “Who will watch the watchmen?” report here.

The university as asylum

The news site Power Line described an opinion from the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in the US as a “banner day” for free speech earlier this week. Speech First v. Cartwright dealt with a challenge to what the University of Central Florida (UCF) had been calling their “bias incident response” policy. UCF had imposed an “anti-discrimination” policy on their campus that described discriminatory harassment as taking many forms, including verbal acts, name-calling, graphic or written statements (via the use of cell phones or the Internet), or other conduct that may be humiliating or physically threatening. The policy further stated that “[i]n evaluating whether a hostile environment exists, the university will consider the totality of known circumstances, including, but not limited to” several factors. In court, UCF were forced to admit that “the totality of known circumstances” were hard to define clearly and would be entirely subjective in many cases. The compounding problem, however, was that on the basis of that unclear definition, UCF had proceeded to establish something called the “Just Knights Response Team” (JKRT). The purpose of this peculiarly monikered team, they said, was “to act as a clearinghouse for any bias-related incidents that may occur on UCF campuses”.

It’s fair to say the 11th Circuit Court wasn’t particularly impressed. The opinion goes on to describe specific students at UCF who feared running afoul of the policy. The UCF policy “objectively chills speech”, wrote Judge Kevin Newsom, because its operation “would cause a reasonable student to fear expressing potentially unpopular beliefs”.

Even more blunt is the concurrence from Judge Stanley Marcus, who was appointed to the appeals bench by President Clinton. Judge Marcus wrote separately:

A university that has placed its highest premium on the protection of feelings or safe intellectual space has abandoned its core mission. The protection of feelings or the creation of safe space rightly might be the foremost goal in some settings, like at a family dinner, but it is not right for a university. A university that turns itself into an asylum from controversy has ceased to be a university; it has just become an asylum.

The university as an asylum. An intriguing image. But was Judge Marcus invoking ‘asylum’ as a process whereby the dispossessed seek sanctuary, or as a benevolent institution in which the afflicted and the mentally unwell are provided with treatment? Rather than tackle that question head on, let us simply note that a few weeks ago the University of the Highlands and Islands placed a trigger warning on Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel The Old Man and the Sea. The book tells the story of an ageing Cuban fisherman on a quest to land a memorable catch, and it was felt that students should be warned that it contains “graphic fishing scenes” of a kind likely to cause psychological distress.

The free press and the coming threat of financial censorship

Anthony Blinken, Washington’s top diplomat, used the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (3 May) to criticise the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong governments for media restrictions and alleged harassment of journalists and dissidents worldwide (Times). Citing data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit advocacy group, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China the biggest threat to press freedom in terms of the number of journalists under detention because of their work.

But is it unfair to single China out like that? A report from the Economist this week made clear that journalists are facing increasing restraints, legal threats and fatal attacks not just in authoritarian countries but in democracies too. “Globally,” it pointed out, “press freedom is in retreat.” Drawing on analysis by UNESCO of data on freedom of expression from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, it estimates that around 85% of people live in countries where press freedom has declined over the past five years.

V-Dem gives each country a score from 0 (least free) to 1 (most free). The global average weighted by population peaked at 0.65 in the early 2000s, and then again in 2011, before falling to 0.49 in 2021. This is the worst score since 1984, when the cold war was raging, and the two sides were propping up dictators on every continent.

Interestingly, though, neither the CPJ nor the Economist mentioned the threat posed to a free press – and, by definition, to free speech – by financial censorship.

Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi published a story this week about how PayPal, the internet payments giant replete with its own founding “mafia,” has recently been selectively de-platforming alternative media sites that publish stories contradicting some of the West’s reporting of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (the New York Post has the story too). Among those to have been banned are MintPress News, a left-wing web-based outlet, and Consortium News, founded by the late Associated Press investigative reporter Robert Parry in 1995 as one of the web’s very first independent, reader-funded news outlets.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, PayPal has form when it comes to limiting or permanently limiting users’ accounts. Only last year, for instance, PayPal division Venmo was sued for blocking payments associated with Islam or Arab nationalities or ethnicities. Even so, silencing news outlets would mark a radical new departure, according to Reclaim the Net. Going after cash, as Taibbi explains,

is a big jump from simply deleting speech and actually has a much bigger chilling effect. This is especially true in the alternative media world, where money has long been notoriously tight, and the loss of a few thousand dollars here or there can have a major effect on a site, podcast, or paper.

So does this mean the global financial system is the new battleground in the fight to defend freedom of speech? Sarah McLellan, writing in Spectator Australia, seems to think so. Citing Jesse Powell, Chief Executive of Kraken Bitcoin Exchange, she argues that “the traditional financial system has essentially been weaponised” and that losing free access to funding streams on account of one’s political views is tantamount to losing free speech. It’s certainly true, as Ramesh Thakur points out (Spectator Australia), that states have been engaging in financial censorship for some time: in 2019, the Russian government froze bank accounts linked to opposition politician Alexei Navalny; in February 2022, Canada froze the bank accounts of mostly peaceful anti-vaccine mandate protestors with no due process, no appeals process and no court order necessary; and in early 2022, SWIFT took the unprecedented move to cut Russia’s central bank from its global financial messaging service.

But that was all state led. The question is whether financial services companies like payment processors, banks, online platforms and credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard are also now starting to get in on the act of influencing what kind of speech can or cannot exist online.

Living Freedom Summer School Event

FSU Legal Officer and Free Speech Champions Universities Coordinator Karolien Celie encourages members to spread the word about the Living Freedom Summer School, taking place in London this summer. “The Living Freedom Summer School is a great opportunity for independent-minded young people to gather, think, question and debate big ideas in an open and friendly atmosphere,” she says. “Participants emerge not just with new ideas but new friendships. It’s a taste of what university life should be all about but too often isn’t.”

Free Speech Champions Event

Next Wednesday, 11th May, the Free Speech Champions will be “comparing notes across the pond” with North American university students, discussing how free speech and academic freedom can be defended. Host Karolien Celie will be joined by a panel including Emma Camp, who made waves with a recent New York Times article describing the culture of self-censorship on US campuses. You can find out more and register for the event here.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

Weekly News Round-up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Reasons to be cheerful about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter

On Tuesday, Twitter’s board accepted the billionaire Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company. Predictably, according to Mick Hume in the Mail, “left-wing pundits, academics and right-on celebrities instantaneously declared themselves terrified that the richest man in the world might dare to do the unthinkable and allow those with even a slightly different opinion from their own to exercise freedom of expression online.”

Was it “terror,” though, or some other emotion? Writing about “the great Musk meltdown” for Spiked, Andrew Doyle pointed out that child psychologists have often observed “that when babies cry, what we assume is an expression of discomfort is in fact a form of rage”. The collective mindset of woke social justice warriors, he went on, “approximates a kind of arrested development, an inability to engage in reasoned discussion or to understand that, when it comes to persuading others of your point of view, tantrums have limited utility”.

Whatever the cause, it was all rather good fun – “almost worth the $45 billion purchase price in entertainment value alone”, as our General Secretary Toby Young put it in the Express.

Comedian Kathy Griffin Tweeted that Musk was a “media-thirsty, vindictive white supremacist”. Civil rights activist Shaun King deleted his account, fearing Musk’s “white power” and apparently fretful that “white nationalists” would now be free to roam the internet, targeting and harassing people. (Shaun himself is white, needless to say.) One preternaturally long-lived journalist – who, although never having won a Pulitzer, must surely have been a contemporary of the man himself – went so far as to warn that “today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany”.

Beyond all the histrionics, though, how will Twitter change under Musk’s ownership?  

Largely, if not entirely, for the worse, according to the BBC. In a remarkably gloomy piece, the reader has to endure academics declaring that an already bad situation will get worse if all the “decent people” (i.e., them) exit the platform, Amnesty International worrying that Musk will turn a blind eye to violent and abusive speech, Joe Biden expressing his “concern”, US Senator Elizabeth Warren warning of “dangers for democracy ahead”, celebrities panicking about an impending uptick in xenophobia, the EU querying whether Musk will adequately protect platform users… and so on.   

Of course, it’s right and proper for a public service broadcaster to allow those voices to be heard. But what about the voices of those on the other side of the argument; what about people who believe that things might, you know… actually get better?

After all, Twitter could hardly be said to have an unblemished record when it comes to free speech. Too often in the past, “harassment” has been conflated with relatively innocuous forms of behaviour in order to justify the deletion of accounts on political grounds. The same could be said of “mis-” or “dis-information”. Those of us who are cheering Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would no doubt point to the suppression of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story or the ban on former President Donald Trump as emblematic examples of Twitter’s violations of basic tenets of free speech. Many gender-critical feminists too – and even satirical website Babylon Bee – have been censored in the past simply for stating biological truths, or raising important questions about women-only spaces.

That’s why, unlike the BBC, the FSU is cautiously optimistic. Our press release (which you can read here) welcomed the news that Twitter had accepted Musk’s offer. Importantly, it “encouraged” Twitter’s new owner to:

Initiate a public discussion on the platform about how best to adhere to the principles of free speech while, at the same time, discourage political opponents from engaging in vicious personal attack or trying to cancel each other. As a crucial first step, Twitter needs to regain the trust of all sides across a range of contentious political issues.

Regaining the trust of all sides. That’s a key point for the FSU. People need to re-learn how to talk to their opponents, to be open to changing their minds, and not to dismiss alternative viewpoints as evidence of dishonesty or hatred. That wasn’t possible when the gatekeepers of the online public square silenced voices that didn’t parrot their own insular worldview. Now, at least, we have hope that in the near future it might be.

Free speech includes the right to be offensive, Mr Speaker

Last weekend, The Mail on Sunday ran a story in which anonymous Tory MPs accused Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, of deliberately crossing and uncrossing her legs to throw Boris Johnson “off his stride” during PMQs. Rayner’s “enchantment effect” (as the Mail described it) was, they claimed, reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s famous reveal in the film Basic Instinct.  

Was it a good idea for the Mail to rehabilitate what Joanna Williams described as “the kind of sexism best left buried with Benny Hill”? Who knows. What worried the FSU rather more was that in the storm of controversy that ensued, condemnations rained down with such hyperbolic ferocity that for a while it felt as if the principle of a free press might be washed away. Parliamentarians on both sides of the house were worryingly quick to render a perfectly legitimate newspaper article – one that they just didn’t happen to like – as evidence of some wider, structural malaise, namely, the sexism supposedly endured “routinely” by all women in Parliament.  

Rayner herself claimed that both sexism and classism were behind the Mail’s story. Labour’s Harriet Harmen described it as “creepy”, before breezily suggesting that changes to the parliamentary code of conduct were needed to render misogyny punishable by suspension from the House of Commons. Conservative Caroline Nokes went further, suggesting that the journalist responsible should lose his parliamentary pass and be subjected to a grilling from a committee of MPs. Surely, though, Nokes’s plan would amount to little more than “censorship dressed up as an attempt to protect women”? If carried through, it would also have the effect of making access to politicians dependent on ‘good behaviour’ – that is, only writing what MPs want to hear.

Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle waded into the debate too. It was, he thundered, “demeaning, offensive to women in Parliament” and would “deter women who might consider standing for election”. He then summoned David Dillon, the editor of the Mail on Sunday, and Glen Owen, the journalist who wrote the story, to meet with him to discuss the offending article and, presumably, attempt to ensure that no similar articles were published again.

The Telegraph’s Sam Ashworth-Hayes described Hoyle’s attempt to “act as de facto press regulator” as indicative of “a startling naivety”. If he’d stuck to making a brief statement, he added, criticising the behaviour of the unnamed Tory MPs whose comments were reported, “then people on all sides of the political fray would have had little to criticise”. Instead, Hoyle turned it into a matter of press freedoms, “a fundamental issue which, as David Cameron before him quickly learnt, is best left untouched”.

The next day, the Mail led with news that neither the Mail on Sunday’s editor, nor the article’s author, would be keeping their appointment with Lindsay, and followed up with a robust defence of their story.

The FSU stands squarely behind the Mail’s defence.

“So what,” wrote Toby for ConHome, “if some female MPs and their male ‘allies’ found the article offensive?” Someone, he added:

Should draw Hoyle’s attention to the words of Lord Justice Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (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.”

It’s not that the Mail on Sunday’s article wasn’t contentious. It’s just that, as Toby pointed out, it was “so obviously within the bounds of protected speech, as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, that Hoyle shouldn’t need reminding that free speech includes the right to demean and offend”.

Thankfully, the Speaker has since backpedalled, stressing that he’s a “staunch believer and protector of press freedom”. But he’s stopped short of withdrawing his summons, which Toby believes is a mistake:

Even if he had no intention of removing Owen’s lobby pass on this occasion, he must be aware that that was the veiled threat he was making by demanding he and his editor come to his office. He should withdraw his summons, admit his error, and never try to interfere in the freedom of the press again.

Museums and the woke war on the past

First it was statues. Then it was street names, clocks, country homes, mathematics, Thatcher’s Cider company and even Shakespeare. Now, though, “left-wing radicals” appear to be eyeing up museums for a spot of decolonisation, reports the Mail.

The Imperial War Museum made headlines last November, staging a woke rap at the end of Remembrance Sunday’s traditional two-minute silence; a rap which the Mail described as “a vile attack on (among others) Churchill and a rant about race”. This week, we learnt that Ipswich Museum’s bosses are looking to hire a “social justice champion” who will be paid £35,000 to help “address the legacies of imperialism, patriarchal power structures and inherent biases in current displays”.

Also in the news this week was Arts Council England (ACE). According to the Telegraph, ACE are using millions in taxpayers’ money to encourage “decolonisation” at smaller English museums. The organisation wields quite a bit of power in the sector, principally because museums are required to obtain ACE’s official accreditation. That’s obviously a tricky task for smaller museums, so an advisory body, Museum Development England (MDE), was recently established to help them navigate the process. A recent MDE training programme offers us a clue as to the type of “help” they’ve been providing. The programme assists managers in laying “the foundations for equity and inclusion at [their] museum”, reminds them that the history they’ve been curating their whole careers has largely been written by “white, wealthy” men, and provides them with “inspirational” examples of best practice in decolonising museums. The need for museums to launch inclusion “action plans”, “champion social justice and equity” and unpick “racist narratives” is also emphasised.

Quite whether hard-pressed, under-resourced managers at institutions like Wigston Framework Knitters Museum, the National Glass Centre and the Isle of Wight Bus and Coach Museum need that type of help is a moot point.

Interestingly, the Telegraph describe the training as “voluntary”. But will those sessions look or feel “voluntary” to museum staff? The training is, after all, provided by an organisation that exists to help them navigate ACE’s accreditation process. And it must surely be common knowledge among practitioners that MDE receives £3 million in annual funding from ACE. Would museum bosses feel confident rejecting “voluntary” training offered by an advisory body with such close links to the sector’s accreditation body? The concern, surely, would be that non-attendance will render them incapable of swearing fealty to all things “inclusive” in the ACE’s accreditation documentation.

Mavericks, apostates, contrarians: all are welcome at Forum

Editors are “terrified of being accused of wrongthink if they allow a book to be published which is deemed to be out of bounds. I think it’s pathetic.” So says George Owers, boss of Forum, a new publishing imprint offering a home to cancelled authors.

There’s certainly enough of them about to make a good business case for a venture like Forum. Back in 2020, for instance, Kathleen Stock, then professor of philosophy at Sussex University and a gender-critical feminist, had a book on female philosophers abandoned by OUP because it was deemed “too controversial”. Kate Clanchy, a teacher of 30 years whose memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me won the Orwell Prize for political writing, saw her decade-long relationship with Picador aborted earlier this year following a cancel-culture maelstrom. And last year the Hachette Book Group dropped Julie Burchill’s Welcome to the Woke Trials: How Identity Killed Progressive Politics over her tweets about Islam. Reflecting on that cancellation for the Critic this week, Rosie Jenkinson remarked that “there’s more than a hint of irony that a book by a woman criticising the cancellation of women was cancelled”. (Reminder: We helped Julie get the rights back to her manuscript and found her another publisher.)

Owers says he won’t take on cancelled authors for the sake of it. “If what they’re arguing is of no merit, or is pure provocation with no real argument, I don’t want to publish it,” he said. He does, though, see the outfit as a first step in challenging the “stranglehold” the industry finds itself in. “In a year’s time,” he says, “we hope Penguin and Picador will be terrified of us.”

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer