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 turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons at the bottom of this email. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Online speakeasy with Meghan Murphy – register for tickets here!

Our next members-only Online Speakeasy is ‘Defeating Twitter Bans and Defending Free Speech’, featuring FSU General Secretary Toby Young in conversation with Meghan Murphy, the founder and editor of Feminist Current, a feminist website and podcast, and host of YouTube channel The Same Drugs. Join us on Zoom at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8th March for this online Speakeasy with Canadian journalist and writer, Meghan Murphy. FSU members can register for the event here. If you’re not yet a member, but would like to attend, you can join us here.

It is of course de rigueur these days for any self-respecting, high-profile champion of women’s sex-based rights to be in receipt of death, rape and bodily mutilation threats from trans rights activists, and Meghan has certainly been keeping up appearances in that regard — indeed, at one point the #BeKind brigade’s campaign of harassment and intimidation became so histrionic that she required police escorts to travel between public engagements in her hometown of Vancouver (Telegraph). Meghan was also permanently banned from Twitter in 2018 for saying that transwomen are not women (Spiked). Thankfully, that ban was lifted by Twitter’s new owner and CEO, Elon Musk, in November 2022.

In 2019, Meghan spoke about gender identity in the Scottish Parliament, urging legislators not to make the same mistakes as Canada and the US, where laws and policies around trans-identifying people were passed without proper consideration of how they might impact society – and women and girls in particular. So it will certainly be fascinating to get Meghan’s take on Scotland’s Gender Recognition (Scotland) Reform Bill, which recently passed into law, abolishing the requirement for people to have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before gaining a so-called gender-recognition certificate, and reducing the time someone has to live in their acquired gender from two years to three months.

Does she agree with UCL’s Head of Social Research, Professor Alice Sullivan, for instance, that (gender) critical voices were ignored during the development and subsequent Parliamentary scrutiny of this legislation (Times)? Was she surprised when UN special rapporteur Reem Alsalem was given the brush off by the ex-First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after raising concerns that this “unfair, rushed, vague and contradictory legislation” could open the door for violent males who identify as men to abuse the process (Times)? And what are her thoughts on the Scottish Prison Service’s policy (now temporarily halted) of housing violent, self-identifying transgender female rapists in women’s jails alongside a population of female offenders known to contain some of the most vulnerable people in society, often with complex histories of trauma, including sexual and domestic abuse (Telegraph, Times)?

You can find Meghan on Twitter here and Substack here. To whet your appetite for the FSU’s Speakeasy, you can listen to Meghan’s appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience here and her TRIGGERnometry appearance here.

Dis-/misinformation and the freedom to dissent – book your tickets here!

So-called dis- and misinformation have been singled out by many governments, institutions, charities and commercial businesses as threats to democracy that require widespread censorship – only this week, for instance, the Czech government announced it is considering sweeping new disinformation laws to block sites that “threaten national security” and prosecute those deemed to be “spreading misinformation” (Reclaim the Net).

But is this a genuine concern, or just an excuse to suppress dissenting points of view on issues like the Covid lockdowns, mRNA vaccines, the war in Ukraine and climate change? And even if the threat is real and the concern is genuine, how can we trust state agencies to accurately identify dis- and misinformation?

Thanks to Elon Musk’s Twitter Files, for instance, we now know that the criminalisation or suppression of ‘fake news’ is often little more than an excuse for Big Tech and the US government to collude in silencing those with lawful yet politically inconvenient opinions. Closer to home, evidence has recently emerged of the UK Government monitoring people who questioned the wisdom of the Covid-19 lockdown, including journalists, scientists, and politicians. Ministry of Truth, a recent report by Big Brother Watch revealed that at least three government units — the Counter Disinformation Unit, the Rapid Response Unit and the army’s 77th Brigade — were deployed to track the social media activities of British citizens, passing on details of social media posts they regarded as problematic so their employers in Whitehall could then report them to social media companies using their ‘trusted flagger’ status in an effort to get those posts removed and their authors banned (Mail, Spectator, Telegraph).

The FSU is bringing together a panel of experts to discuss these issues, including the Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness, and two people identified by a 77th Brigade whistle-blower as having been flagged for disseminating ‘misinformation’ about the Government’s pandemic response, the journalist Peter Hitchens and FSU General Secretary Toby Young.

Join us in-person or online to discuss what lessons we should learn about how to counter the mis/disinformation police and defend the freedom to dissent. The link to register for tickets is here.

New poll reveals “hostility” towards firms forcing staff to declare pronouns

According to a poll commissioned by think tank Policy Exchange, firms pursuing ‘woke’ policies are “disliked” by the “majority of workers” (Sun), “inciting a hostile public” (Telegraph) and – particularly if you prefer your news to evoke the florid prose style of the Old Testament – “risking the wrath of Brits” (Mail).

The company Polling People surveyed 1,169 people earlier this month, and the results were weighted to represent the wider population. One of the stand-out findings is that 58% of people say they believe companies should not force employees to declare their gender pronouns, with 45% disagreeing “completely” and an additional 13% disagreeing “somewhat”. Commenting on the findings, Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University, who carried out the polling, said a growing number of companies are now “adrift” from the wider public by “lecturing them about political issues and being seen to stifle their free speech and expression” (Telegraph).

At first glance, an overall percentage figure of 58% might seem a little low to support that sort of fighting talk. Yet the dataset for this survey question contained a large proportion of respondents (26%) who either “didn’t know” or – more intriguingly – “wouldn’t say” what their view was. As a result, the 58% figure needs to be understood in light of the fact that just 16% of respondents agreed that companies should be able to compel this behaviour, with 7% “completely” agreeing, and 9% “somewhat” agreeing.  

Contextualising this finding for the Telegraph, Camilla Turner was quick to point out that gender pronouns are on the rise. “Britain’s biggest employers are increasingly asking staff to use pronouns to reflect their gender identity, with the City making particular efforts to shake off its ‘pale, male and stale’ image,” she wrote. That’s certainly true, although as the FSU’s ever expanding case files make clear, it’s quickly becoming a point of contention across many other, small and medium sized organisations too.

We’re now regularly contacted by members and supporters 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. That’s why last year we thought it would be useful to pull together some FAQs on this issue (which you can access here).

Can you be forced to declare your gender pronouns? As with so many free speech issues, there are some legal protections for employees who don’t want to, 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…

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. Over the years, we’ve accumulated a lot of experience in this area, and have often secured successful outcomes for members.

Because of the privacy concerns at stake, we obviously can’t always publicise our successes, although one story we were able to go public with late last year gives a sense of the impact we can have when it comes to reminding bosses that employees have the right to their own political views.

Following a tip-off that an elite performing arts college in South London had told staff on more than one occasion to declare their preferred pronouns on email in solidarity with trans people, Toby wrote to the college principal, Mr De Abreu, setting out the legal violations that may have taken place, and asking him to make clear to staff that whether they chose to declare their gender pronouns in their signatures was optional, and that they wouldn’t suffer any detriment, including harm to their promotion prospects, if they refused to do so. Mr De Abreu was happy to oblige. “We appreciate that this may have been interpreted as an instruction to include pronouns and certain logos,” he conceded in a statement issued to the Mail just before they ran the story, “but it is not, and has never been, the intention of Bird College to require any staff member to declare pronouns, or to appear to support any political group in their email signature.”

FSU produces template document to support actuaries wishing to respond to IFoA consultation on the Actuaries’ Code!

The only chartered professional body for actuaries in the UK, the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA), has begun a consultation on amending the Actuaries’ Code (AC) to include ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ – or DEI. The AC is the profession’s ethical code of conduct and one of the foundational documents governing the behaviour of members of the IFoA, so any changes will have considerable ramifications – not least because the IFoA has 32,000 members, including 15,000 student members and 46 partner universities.

It’s clearly important for professionals to be held to high standards of behaviour, and as with many other, similar codes, the AC applies to members across a very broad range of circumstances – wherever conduct could reasonably be considered to reflect upon the profession. So, for example, social media posts or political activity in members’ personal lives are covered by the Code.

Some of the new guidelines in the IFoA’s consultation are worrying.

Take the proposed amendment that “members must show respect for everyone and treat others fairly”. At first glance, that might seem reasonable. But the problem with words like ‘respect’ is that their meaning is potentially – sometimes designedly – vague and subjective. Is the IFoA talking about ‘respecting’ individuals as fellow members of society, for instance, or ‘respecting’ their self-declared identity? The two aren’t equivalent – the latter might require members of the IFoA to use the preferred gender pronouns of trans people, for instance.

And what about other people’s views? Will IFoA members be expected to respect them? When Richard Dawkins opines on religion, his manner may well be respectful, if by respectful we mean ‘polite and courteous’. But individuals with strongly held religious views may not find him at all respectful, if by respectful we mean ‘deferential and unquestioning’. So could an IFoA member be found to be in breach of the new Code simply for showing support for a public figure who expresses perfectly lawful criticisms of other peoples’ beliefs?

This is just one of many concerns the FSU has about the proposed amendments.

There’s a more general concern here too, in that the IFoA’s initial instincts highlight the changing role of professional organisations in regulating the behaviour – and speech – of their members. Where once these bodies would restrict themselves to upholding professional standards in the workplace, they now seem intent on collapsing entirely the distinction between occupational and private life.

If any FSU members who are also members of the IFoA are thinking of submitting a response to the consultation, then please do get in touch with the team via [email protected] – with the help of Katie Sokolowski we’ve prepared a template document setting out the issues at stake.

Prof Steven Greer reveals extent of Bristol University ordeal after falsely being accused of ‘Islamophobia’

Prof Steven Greer, until recently a law professor at Bristol University, spoke to the media this week about being forced into hiding and living in fear of his life after students made false accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ about his teaching materials (Express, Mail, Telegraph, Times, Times, Times Higher).

The FSU first stepped in to defend Prof Greer back in 2021 after university authorities mishandled a complaint from Bristol University’s Islamic Society (BriSoc) in which it was alleged that teaching materials on Greer’s ‘Islam, China and the Far East’ module were ‘Islamophobic’. (You can read our initial letter to Prof Judith Squires, the VC and Provost of Bristol University here.)

BriSoc claimed that a teaching slide that made reference to the 2015 terrorist attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo constituted “Islamophobic rhetoric” and, in addition, that he had given a “bigoted and divisive” lecture on women and non-Muslims in Islamic states and the penalties handed out under sharia law.

A five-month inquiry led by a senior academic at the university found that BriSoc’s allegations were baseless. A senior KC appointed to look into his conduct also found no evidence of an offence under the Equality Act 2010 and concluded that his teaching material “did not amount to discrimination or harassment and was intended as the basis for academic debate by the students who elected to study it”.

Despite both parties being asked to keep the investigation confidential, BriSoc engaged in a campaign of online vilification against Prof Greer both during and after the investigation, with the aid of an online petition and various social media platforms. In the digital storm which ensued, Prof Greer was at one point compared to Samuel Paty, the French school teacher beheaded in October 2020 by an Islamist militant who believed that illustrating a class discussion about blasphemy and freedom of expression with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed justified his beheading.

Speaking to the Mail, Prof Greer criticised students for putting the lives of academics at risk, and said direct threats left him fearing for his life. In his book published this week, however, he directs much of his ire at the university, which, even after he was cleared, cancelled his teaching module – because administrators didn’t want the course to attract any more complaints – and issued a statement saying that it “recognise[d] BriSoc’s concerns”. The lack of institutional support on offer was further illustrated, Prof Greer says, by the fact that BriSoc was not required to apologise or remove its online petition or social media content, even after the allegations had been rejected.

Commenting on the case for the Times, FSU Legal Officer Karolien Celie said Prof Greer’s “horrific ordeal” was “yet another salutary reminder of the fragility of academic freedom in the contemporary UK”. It’s certainly interesting to reflect on Prof Greer’s case in light of recent debates over the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. One of the arguments that critics of the Bill made repeatedly on its second reading in the House of Lords, for instance, was that the legislation’s new free speech duties address a non-existent problem. There is no free speech crisis at English universities, the peers claimed, because a recent review of 10,000 university events by Wonkhe found that only six had been cancelled and, as Baroness Thornton triumphantly pointed out, “four of those because of faulty paperwork”.

But as Prof Greer’s ordeal so aptly demonstrates, cancellation of visiting speakers is not the only form of cancel culture on campus. The bureaucratic, unnecessarily drawn-out processes which universities use to investigate staff who, like Prof Greer, have done little more than exercise their right to academic freedom, tend to exert their own ‘chilling’ effect. As Baroness Fox observed at second reading in the House of Lords, it’s not the risk of downstream contractual termination, but the upstream process of being accused and investigated that becomes the punishment, leaving a blemish on a person’s reputation which other academics are then able to see, and reflect upon in light of their own potentially ‘inappropriate’ behaviour. Small wonder Prof Greer is warning that scholars in the fields of the arts, humanities and social sciences are now self-censoring and ‘dumbing down’ their courses for fear of being falsely branded as “hostile to minorities” by “woke student campaigners” (Telegraph).

The FSU has been proud to support Steven through an ordeal that, as Jawad Iqbal points out in the Times, “violate[d] every principle underpinning a free society, and [brought] shame on the university authorities who were too quick to throw him under the bus”. In a recent email to our legal team, which Steven has very kindly allowed us to share with our members, he described “how phenomenally grateful I am to you all for your stupendous help and support over the past year and a half or so. Without you, my family and other friends, the BriSoc scandal would have been truly unbearable.”

Help protect freedom of speech in the workplace by donating to Karen Sunderland’s fundraise!

Karen Sunderland is suing her former employer after falling victim to ‘offence archaeology’. In 2018, when Karen was a Conservative candidate in the local elections, iNews dug up some tweets she’d posted in 2017 and managed to get her suspended by the party. The tweets reflected her sincere belief that aspects of Islamic doctrine are illiberal and unfair to women.

Four years later, when Karen was embarking on a new career, someone tipped off her employer about this episode and she was fired. Karen believes her comments were protected political speech, and that her dismissal was unfair and discriminatory. Her claim makes two important legal arguments.

First, her dismissal was either directly or indirectly because of her belief in conservatism, a belief protected by the Equality Act 2010. Establishing that conservatism is a protected belief would bring balance to the law: while there is case law protecting democratic socialism there are no equivalent protections for its right-wing counterpart. If she succeeds in winning this argument, the judgement would protect employees with conservative views which, while wholly lawful, are often distasteful to HR officers.

Second, Karen argues that she was dismissed because of her belief in freedom of speech. In short, free-thinkers attract controversy, and always have – and employers who put rigid speech codes in place are disproportionately affecting those who believe in free speech. A finding that freedom of speech is a protected belief would give legal protection to other employees who manifest that belief by speaking their minds and testing received wisdom.

Karen’s trial begins on 28th March. She is being represented by barrister Francis Hoar, acting on a direct access basis. Francis is one of England’s best barristers when it comes to freedom of speech cases and party-political matters: in 2021 he published In Protection of Freedom of Speech, with a Foreword by Lord Sumption.

You can donate to Karen’s fundraiser here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

FSU Communications Officer