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.

New FSU event on the return of blasphemy laws – book your tickets here!

The FSU is delighted to announce a new event, ‘Blasphemy law by the back door?’

Speakers include Director of Common Sense Society UK Emma Webb, researcher and author Dr Rakib Ehsan, Steven Evans of the National Secular Society, and Ben Jones, the FSU’s Deputy Case Director.

Although the offence of blasphemy was abolished in England and Wales in 2008, the disturbing case of the Batley Grammar School teacher – still in hiding two years after showing a picture of Mohammed to an RE class – and the recent punishment of four schoolboys in Wakefield for lightly scuffing a copy of the Quran suggests that de facto blasphemy laws are still being enforced in the UK, just not on behalf of Christians.

In this climate, are we seeing the return of blasphemy laws ‘by the back door’? How might we strike a balance between tolerance for diverse beliefs and the right to ridicule or criticise religion? And can we defend the right to criticise Islam, when our institutions routinely censure dissent from woke liturgy?  

Join us in-person – or online if you’re an FSU member – on Wednesday 10th May from 7:30pm as our impressive panel address one of the most pressing threats to freedom of speech in western, liberal democracies.

Full details and a link to purchase in-person tickets can be found on our Events page. If you can’t get to London, then join us via Zoom – it’s free of charge for FSU members, and you can register for the link here.

Online Speakeasy with Simon Fanshawe – register for tickets here!

On Tuesday 18th April, Toby Young will be joined in conversation at an exclusive, members only Online Speakeasy with writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe OBE. Simon has had a career that stretches from being an award-winning comic (Perrier Award 1989) to a Sunday Times feature writer, as well as a broadcaster and columnist. He is also the author of the best-selling book The Power of Difference, which has just been awarded Management Book of the Year 2022. Further details about the event are available here. If you’re an FSU member, Zoom registration is free of charge – you can register for the link here.

The latest episode of the FSU’s podcast now available!

In this week’s episode of That’s Debatable!, Ben Jones and Tom Harris, two FSU officers, discuss the mobbing of women’s sex-based rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen by trans rights activists, the rewriting of Agatha Christie’s novels, and the dangers that digital currencies pose to everyone’s speech rights. Click here to listen to the podcast – and don’t forget to search for That’s Debatable! on your favourite podcasting app and hit ‘subscribe’ so you don’t miss next week’s episode.

University administrator warns that ‘trigger warnings’ infantilise undergraduates

The introduction of trigger warnings on university texts is teaching students to become fragile and childlike, a former senior university administrator has claimed (Scottish Daily Express, Times).

In an essay for the Scottish Union for Education, the former Director of Careers at the University of Glasgow argued that undergraduates are being infantilised by suggestions that they need to be protected from ideas that might upset them.

“Given the proliferation of reports about the fragility of students, you might be forgiven for thinking that higher education is deeply harmful,” Linda Murdoch wrote. “Or alternatively, you might be forgiven for thinking that those that describe young people as frail, flaky or snowflakes have a point.

“It’s almost every day a university announces trigger warnings cautioning students about course material, or a student group demands a safe space away from hurtful ideas.”

She went on to point out that issues such as stress over meeting essay deadlines or exam anxiety were now seen as threats to a student’s mental health, rather than normal emotional reactions.

“Students today have been taught to fear their thoughts and feelings,” she continued, “and it is this, together with the pathologisation of their everyday emotions and the promotion of risks and campaigns in help-seeking behaviour, that have led to more of them reporting themselves to be emotionally fragile.”

Last year, an investigation by the Times found 1,081 examples of trigger warnings in university courses across the UK.

Two universities – Essex and Sussex – admitted to removing books from study lists for fear that they might ‘trigger’ students, the first time this has happened at British universities. Eight others, including Russell Group members Warwick, Exeter and Glasgow, had made certain texts optional “to protect students’ welfare”. Some of the Britain’s most celebrated authors – including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie – are among those whose works have been deemed disturbing enough to require warnings.

Agatha Christie novels latest to be re-written to align with progressive sensibilities 

In a boon for second-hand bookshops up and down the country, sensitivity readers have been bowdlerising new editions of Agatha Christie’s novels, rewriting entire sections and deleting others to bring them into line with ‘progressive’ sensibilities (Express, GB News, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph). The news comes after books by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming were given the same treatment by so-called ‘sensitivity readers’, who comb through books looking for anything that might conceivably cause offence to anyone at any time for any reason (Daily Sceptic, Telegraph).

The latest editions of Agatha Christie’s works have been released since 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers, including new editions of the entire run of Miss Marple mysteries and selected Poirot novels. Digital versions include scores of changes to texts written between 1920 and 1976, stripping them of numerous passages containing descriptions or references to ethnicity, particularly for characters that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot encounter outside the UK.

Certain ‘boo’ words have been deleted, most notably the term ‘Oriental’. Other descriptions have been altered in some instances, with a black servant originally portrayed as grinning as he understands the need to stay silent about an incident, described as neither black nor smiling but simply as “nodding”.

In a new edition of the 1964 Miss Marple novel A Caribbean Mystery, the amateur detective’s musing that a West Indian hotel worker smiling at her has “such lovely white teeth” has also been removed, with similar references to “beautiful teeth” elsewhere in the book also taken out.

But these Orwellian airbrushings aren’t just to do with ethnicity. Apparently, any fictional character that said anything potentially offensive to the progressive modern ear was fair game to the publisher’s sensitivity readers.

In many instances, the author’s own narration, often channelled through the inner monologue of characters like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, has been altered. Sections of dialogue uttered by often unsympathetic characters have also been cut – not even murderers are now allowed to be politically incorrect, it seems.

In the 1937 Poirot novel Death on the Nile, the character of Mrs Allerton complains that a group of children are pestering her, saying:

They come back and stare, and stare, and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children.

This has been stripped down in a new edition to the following:

They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children.

‘Progressive’ it might be, but it’s also an infringement of an author’s right to freedom of expression. In the revised version, the prosody of Christie’s original is entirely destroyed, as is the insight it was designed to give us in to the peculiar psychological make-up of Mrs Allerton’s character.

Transgender athlete research rejected after academic refers to trans women as ‘males’

In an apparent attack on academic freedom, research into transgender athletes has been shut down after a senior academic at King’s College London (KCL) referred to trans women as ‘males’ in a funding proposal (Telegraph).

Dr John Armstrong applied to carry out a survey of elite athletes and volunteers on whether transwomen, who are born male, should compete in women’s track and field categories and whether they felt they were free to express themselves on the subject.

However, the university’s ethics panel rejected his application, citing equality and diversity concerns. In what appears to be a dismissal of the protected status of ‘gender critical’ beliefs, the panel stated: “The language is not sensitive and the misgendering of athletes is not appropriate… there is obvious bias in the language and there is very little scientific reasoning underpinning the hypothesis.”

At issue was a particular section of Dr Armstrong’s application that stated: “The principle aim of the project is to find the views of athletes and volunteers on the question of when males should be allowed to compete in the female category in athletics.”

Dr Armstrong, a Reader in financial mathematics, also accused the ethics panel of an ‘ad hominem’ attack on his expertise after they questioned why he was leading the project – as he pointed out, he is already conducting statistical analyses on trans athletes and had brought in leading survey expert Prof Alice Sullivan as co-investigator of the proposed project.

KCL’s panel also said “there is a risk that some participants might be unhappy or distressed by the questions that are being posed to them” and asked Dr Armstrong to “please contact the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion team to seek input on the wording used”.

Worker Protection Bill reaches second reading stage in the House of Lords

As many members will be aware, the FSU has been briefing allies across both Houses of Parliament on the troubling implications for free speech of a Private Members’ Bill proposed by Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse that has received very little Parliamentary scrutiny and provoked almost no debate in the public square.

Thanks to the Government’s support, the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill sailed through the House of Commons last month. This week, it had its second reading in the House of Lords, and it was heartening to see some terrific speeches from the floor of the House (we clipped some of them for our Twitter page here, here and here). Arguably, Lord Strathcarron’s was the pick of the bunch.

As the bill’s title suggests, the legislation Hobhouse and the Government are proposing to amend is the Equality Act 2010, which imposes a legal duty on employers to protect workers from harassment by other employees defined as “unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic” (i.e., age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation) where that conduct has the purpose or effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

The Hobhouse bill will expand that duty, rendering bosses additionally liable for harassment of their employees by members of the public that they come into contact with while doing their jobs.

If we were just talking about, say, sexual harassment, that would be one thing. But the bill seeks to extend third-party liability to every type of ‘unwanted conduct’ already prohibited by the Equality Act, including overheard conversations. In other words, if the bill becomes law, employers will have a duty to take “all reasonable steps” to protect their workers from overhearing ‘upsetting’ remarks made not only by their colleagues, but third parties as well.

Following pressure from the FSU, the Government has amended the bill so speech that involves “an expression of opinion on a political, moral, religious or social matter” is protected. That’s better, but it’s still not great. What about pub banter and football chants, for instance?

As Lord Strathcarron pointed out during his speech, what will become of book launches? “Would Waterstones, for example, risk an in-store book signing by JK Rowling or Helen Joyce on the off-chance that one of the author’s fans might be wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘Woman Equals Adult Human Female’, knowing that an employee could sue for hurt feelings – real or vexatious?”

These were “real issues facing real businesses” he said, before adding “we are wading into very dangerous waters” with this legislation.

The FSU is calling on the minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch, to ditch the bill in its entirety. With hospitality venues struggling to survive rising energy costs, inflation and a hiked corporation tax rate, more red tape is the last thing they need. At the very least, the Government should make commencement of all the clauses other than the ones dealing with sexual harassment contingent on a proper consultation with all the sectors likely to be affected.

You can read our briefing note on the Worker Protection Bill here.