Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a brief round-up of the free speech news of the week.

Online Safety Bill

This week we published You’re On Mute, our report into the serious danger posed to free speech by the Government’s forthcoming Online Safety Bill. The report was written by our Research Director Dr Radomir Tylecote, as well as Victoria Hewson from the Institute of Economic Affairs, Matthew Lesh from the Adam Smith Institute and Dr Bryn Harris, our Chief Legal Counsel.

Dr Tylecote warned in The Critic that the legislation would “restrict free speech online to a degree almost unprecedented in a democracy” and the Free Speech Union was quoted in the Express warning that the bill would inevitably be used to enforce woke political views and stifle free expression.

Matthew Lesh demolished the proposals in CapX, slamming social media giants for “both excessive and inconsistent censorship and under moderation of genuinely unlawful speech… These censorship issues will only get worse when the Government gives the power to Ofcom to dictate how private companies moderate their platforms. It will also fail to address the very real harms happening on the internet.”

Meanwhile Ofcom was blasted by ex-BBC journalist Robin Aitken in the Telegraph for the enlarged “hate speech” section in its new “censor’s charter”. The updated version of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code forbids broadcasters from airing anything which incites hate on the grounds of “disability, ethnicity, social origin, gender, sex, gender reassignment, nationality, race, religion or belief, colour, genetic features, language, political or any other opinion”.

Equity accused of “tone policing” theatre critics over race, age and gender

The actors’ trade union Equity has told theatre critics to “challenge their own biases” and “avoid referring to immutable characteristics such as age, race, gender and appearance”. Our General Secretary Toby Young, who used to be a drama critic, took Equity to task in the Spectator over its new guidelines, launched as part of its anti-racism campaign. Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph was similarly scathing, writing that Equity was ultimately threatening “the freedom of artists of all backgrounds, and freedom of thought”.

Maya Forstater appeals Employment Tribunal verdict over her dismissal for gender critical views

Maya Forstater was sacked from an international think tank for criticising transgender ideology after a Twitter storm in 2018. She took her case to an Employment Tribunal and was told, incredibly, that her view that “male people are not women” was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. Her appeal was heard this week and she told the Telegraph she was “fighting for the right to say men can never be women”. This is a landmark free speech case so if you feel like contributing to Maya’s fundraiser, please do.

Rebecca Lowe of pro-free speech group Radical wrote in ConservativeHome: “Until recently, it would’ve been funny to hear someone claim it controversial to state that only ‘adult human females’ are women. You could even imagine this being used as an example, back then, of ‘something we all believe to be the case’. It’s not so funny any more.”

No political party in Scotland is brave enough to enter the debate on the legal meaning of “woman”, says feminist Susan Dalgety. Any argument against gender self-identification is screamed down as ‘transphobic’, and the co-leader of the Scottish Greens compared gender critical feminists to racists. Jamie Gillies takes up this argument in Spiked, asking where the free speech defenders are in Scottish politics.

The push to let people “tailor their own reality to personal preference – and to use the law’s coercive force to compel public compliance” is only likely to get worse, argues Mary Harrington in UnHerd, following a Canadian legal decision about polyamory. Jordan Peterson was right, she says, that social justice legislation is resulting in compelled speech.

Pastor arrested for ‘offensive’ preaching

A 71-year-old pastor was arrested in Uxbridge for preaching about the Bible, which police said was homophobic. Pastor John Sherwood said, “I wasn’t making any homophobic comments, I was just defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. I was only saying what the Bible says – I wasn’t wanting to hurt anyone or cause offence.”

His fellow preacher, Pastor Peter Simpson, said, “Anyone who cares about liberty should be concerned about what happened in Uxbridge.”

Pastor Sherwood has been released, but the police have passed details of his case to the Crown Prosecution Service. If he’s charged with an offence, the Free Speech Union will be joining with Christian Concern to come to his defence.


Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan continues his campaign for a global blasphemy law, threatening trade boycotts with countries where “incidents” of blasphemy against the Islamic prophet Mohammed occur. Khan promises his campaign will be effective, but as Gavin Mortimer points out in the Spectator we already have “an unofficial blasphemy law” across much of the Continent “and those who challenge it – such as the French teacher Samuel Paty or the Yorkshire teacher in Batley – lose either their life or their livelihood”.

Two Iranians have been handed the death penalty for insulting Mohammed, and an Algerian researcher is facing prison for ‘blasphemy’ in his home country.

Meanwhile, Sarah Ditum argues in the Times that Western atheists are increasingly behaving like the fundamentalists they oppose, censoring blasphemy against the woke creed.

Welcome to the Journal of Controversial Ideas

The Journal of Controversial Ideas has finally launched, having been talked about for at least two years. It is billed as “the first open access, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal specifically created to promote free inquiry on controversial topics”.

“Freedom of thought and discussion in the universities is no longer a universally-held value, even among academics,” its editors say in the Times.

An article from the new journal was discussed in UnHerd, exploring whether universities should host flat-earthers, concluding that “to protect students from every wrong idea isn’t just infantilising, it is enfeebling”.

No rest for the censors in UK universities

A “stellar” academic at the University of Edinburgh has been relieved of his teaching duties and now faces an investigation, the Times reports. Students circulated a template letter and links to online complaint forms to encourage people to accuse Dr Neil Thin of being a racist. His sin was to oppose the renaming of the University’s David Hume Tower and speak out against a campus event – ‘Resisting Whiteness’ – which featured a segregated area for non-white students. Dr Thin is a member of the Free Speech Union and we will be providing him with our full range of assistance, up to and including legal support.

Our Chief Legal Counsel, Dr Bryn Harris, has written a piece for the Critic arguing in favour of the Government’s forthcoming academic free speech bill. “If we want a culture of free speech at our universities, we must force open a space in which students and academics can let that culture grow,” he says. “That can only be achieved if there is an enforceable right to push back against institutions that try to close down that space.”

Dr Michael Spence, Provost of University College London, has said universities have a responsibility to “teach students how to disagree well across really sometimes quite profound barriers of disagreement”. This has to be part of the answer to opposing cancel culture.

Covid free speech threat

Paul Dolan argues in the Telegraph in defence of academic inquiry and empirical investigation, warning of groupthink and conformity when it comes to lockdowns and other measures to contain COVID-19. Mark Changizi, co-founder of a pro-free speech group called FreeX, agrees, arguing in the Federalist that that free expression shouldn’t be a casualty of Covid. To illustrate the point, Twitter has censored tweets that are critical of India’s handling of its epidemic. A Twitter spokesman confirmed to the BBC that it had blocked material from being seen in India.

Cancel culture

The new biography of Philip Roth is to be pulped after author Blake Bailey was accused of sexual misconduct. The book is to be taken out of print less than a month after its release, even though Bailey has denied all of the allegations. Funnily enough, no woke mobs have sprung up to demand that Michel Foucault’s books be burnt following revelations that he sexually abused children in Tunisia.

Former Vice President Mike Pence’s book deal looks like the next to be targeted by woke publishing staff, with hundreds of Simon & Schuster employees demanding that his two-book deal be cancelled.

Seth Barron asks what happens next for the victims of cancel culture, while Katya Sedgwick writes, “The woke know exactly how to break their victims down.”

Back in the UK, a supermarket worker has won an appeal for unfair dismissal after he showed a Lidl colleague his swastika tattoo. The judge said a warning would have been a more proportionate response.

Social media

The EU is becoming the policeman of the internet, writes Edward Lucas, while Gilad Edelman argues American-style free speech is already dead on social media. In Cyprus a British mother is facing a £3,500 fine for criticising a politician on Facebook.

Stop bloody bossing us about!

Join us for the Free Speech Union’s first Online Speakeasy on Wednesday 5th May, 7 – 8.30pm, on Zoom.

All members are invited to this free event in which FSU General Secretary Toby Young will be joined by journalist, parliamentary sketch-writer, theatre critic and author Quentin Letts for an evening of seriously irreverent conversation about free speech. Members will be able to join in with a live Q and A.

Quentin’s latest book, Stop Bloody Bossing Me About: Why We Need to Stop Being Told What to Do, is a spirited rant against the bossy-boots, the fear-mongers and the finger-waggers who seem to dominate civic and cultural life. 

Members can register for their free ticket here. If you have any queries about this event, please email [email protected].

Quote of the week

“Freedom of speech used to be okay – what’s happened?”

 – Van Morrison, interviewed in the Times

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Best wishes,

Benjamin Jones

Case Officer