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.

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

In this week’s episode of the FSU’s podcast, That’s Debatable!, our hosts, Tom Harris and Ben Jones, cover quite some ground, paying tribute to Dame Edna creator Barry Humphries, and discussing news that the US Securities and Exchange Commission has thrown its backing behind a proposal by conservative investors to investigate PayPal’s apparent predilection for politically motivated financial censorship.

Elsewhere during the podcast, the boys discuss the decision to rename the Brecon Beacons and why it represents yet another instance of a wider trend towards the woke-washing of national cultural memory by our über ‘progressive’ elites.

You can listen to a clip of that discussion here, and download the episode in full here – 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.

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 the 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 Director of Case.

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

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, who can register for the link here.

Oxford students call for Kathleen Stock to be no-platformed over gender critical views

Oxford University’s LGBTQ+ student society has urged the Oxford Union to rescind its “misguided” speaking invitation to the gender critical feminist Kathleen Stock in “solidarity with the trans community” (Express, GB News, Mail, Spiked, Talk TV, Telegraph).

In a social media statement as predictable as it is dispiriting, the society said it was “dismayed and appalled” that the historic debating society had “decided to platform the transphobic and trans exclusionary speaker Kathleen Stock”. The group went on to accuse the Union of “disregarding the welfare of its LGBTQ+ members under the guise of free speech”.

Dr Stock is a former philosophy professor who resigned from her post at Sussex University in 2021 following a sustained cancellation campaign waged against her by self-styled “anti-TERF” activists determined to destroy her career and have her sacked because they disagreed with her views (Mail). Shamefully, even when Professor Stock received death threats and the police advised her to install CCTV outside her home and stay away from campus unless accompanied by bodyguards, the local branch of her union, the University and College Union (UCU), couldn’t quite bring itself to offer unconditional support to its fee-paying member (although it did issue a statement offering support to “trans and non-binary communities at Sussex”) (Times, Spiked).

The essence of Dr Stock’s argument – which it’s fair to say very few of her detractors will have read – is that womanhood and manhood reflect biological sex, not gender or gender identity, and that spaces where women undress, sleep or recover from traumatic experiences like rape and domestic abuse, should therefore remain “genuinely single-sex”.

As Dr Stock pointed out on Twitter, the LGBTQ+ society’s statement, which also alleged she was in favour of conversion therapy and supported “hate groups such as the LGB Alliance” contains “several falsehoods” and “is probably defamatory”.

Even if it isn’t technically actionable, what functional purpose do missives of this kind actually serve when it comes to effectively contesting and – who knows? – even rebutting Dr Stock’s arguments? Speaking to The Telegraph, FSU General Secretary Toby Young made the point that for the past five years, “LGBTQ activists have been refusing to debate gender critical feminists, claiming their views are ‘harmful’ and smearing them as bigots and TERFS”. Has this tactic worked? It’s certainly frightened off a lot of the activists’ opponents, but it hasn’t persuaded many members of the public to support their cause. As Toby says, “they’re losing the argument in the public square and setting the cause of trans rights backwards”.

Cambridge museum removes painting of multicultural free love previously branded “racist”

Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum has removed from display a painting by Sir Stanley Spencer on the subject of multicultural free love – curators had previously described it as “racist” and “offensive” and taken issue with the artist’s “ignorance” (Telegraph).

The university’s Fitzwilliam Museum boasts a collection of works by Sir Stanley Spencer, one of Britain’s most distinctive 20th-century painters, but curators disapprove of what they describe as the artist’s “ignorance”. The painting is now no longer on display and the gallery has confirmed it has no plans to rehang it.

Prior to its removal, a label for the 1935 piece, ‘Love Among the Nations’, stated that Sir Stanley’s work contained “offensive” images and revealed an “unquestioned racism”.

Following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the university stated that its museums would be “actively transforming their collections to speak to today’s audiences”, and in 2022 the label alleging racism was created for the painting to provide a “critical perspective”.

The canvas, one of a number of his works celebrating ‘free love’, depicts contorted figures of various ethnicities kissing and embracing.

The label for Sir Stanley’s work stated that “the image is powerfully shaped by his own ignorance” and amounts to “a series of racist caricatures”. It added: “None of Spencer’s human subjects escape this taste for the grotesque, but the painting shows how this broadly misanthropic outlook intersected with an unquestioned racism. Raised on the moral rightness of British imperial rule, Spencer imagines civilization firmly in the West and savagery in its colonies.

“What should happen to pictures that contain offensive racial stereotypes, given their connection to the real suffering of generations of colonised and enslaved subjects?” the caption then asked.

Reacting to the museum’s decision to effectively go ahead and answer this question on the public’s behalf, Toby Young told The Telegraph that “great art is supposed to be disturbing and unsettling, not a vehicle for the dissemination of official orthodoxies”.

“If the Fitzwilliam is only going to display pictures that reflect our own values back to us”, he added, then “visiting its galleries will be like walking through a hall of mirrors”.

Sadly, it’s not just the Fitzwilliam’s curators that seem intent on building collections that evoke the aesthetics of the funfair.

In 2021, the National Museum Cardiff removed a portrait of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, the Waterloo hero and former governor of Trinidad, as part of a project to “decolonise” its collection (Telegraph).

Last year, Tate Britain decided to close the Rex Whistler Restaurant after a mural by the artist in the eatery was found to be “racist” by the institution’s own ‘ethics committee’ (Mail).

A review of Parliament’s historic art collection also recently identified 343 pieces tainted by slavery, and the cross-party Speaker’s Advisory Group on Works of Art is now considering how the labelling or presentation of the collection should be changed (Mail).

Who knows, perhaps Britain’s curators will stick all these ‘problematic’ paintings in one large gallery space and hold a “degenerate art exhibition”.

The Weekly Sceptic Live and the Lockdown Files Live

You can now purchase tickets to two live events featuring our very own General Secretary.

The first is a live recording of the Weekly Sceptic – the regular podcast of the Daily Sceptic, Toby’s news publishing website, featuring stand-up comic and GB News presenter Nick Dixon, Daily Sceptic editor Will Jones and Toby. It’s at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on 20th May. Doors open at 7pm (as does the bar). The two-hour show starts at 7.30pm and includes an audience Q&A, along with a section called ‘Peak Woke’ in which Nick and Toby compete to see who can find the most egregious example of woke gobbledygook in the past seven days. Guaranteed laughs. Tickets are only £25 and available here – but hurry if you’d like to go. They’re selling fast.

The second is the Lockdown Files Live, an exclusive, one-off event on 10th June in which Toby will be interviewing Isabel Oakeshott on stage about Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages which she leaked to the Telegraph and became the basis of the paper’s Lockdown Files. The evening, which is also at the Emmanuel Centre, will include a series of readings from the WhatsApp messages featuring actor and leader of the Reclaim Party Laurence Fox as Matt Hancock. Doors open at 7pm (as does the bar) and the two-hour show starts at 7.30pm (including an Audience Q&A). You can find out more and book your tickets (also £25) here.

Trans activists again cancel Edinburgh University screening of gender critical documentary

A film that criticises transgender ideology and explores the views, concerns, and experiences of gender critical feminists (i.e., people who believe in the immutable biological reality of sex) has been shut down for the second time after trans activists caused “safety concerns” by occupying the screening room and blocking off entrances (Guardian, Herald, Scotsman, Telegraph, Times, Times Higher).

Adult Human Female was meant to be shown at Edinburgh University on Wednesday evening, but administrators cancelled the screening after trans rights activists obstructed access to the Gordon Aikman lecture theatre – the second time an attempt to show the film on campus has had to be abandoned.

The film argues that women are defined by biological sex, rather than gender identity. Trans activists (and some university staff and student groups) claim that this view is ‘transphobic’ because it allegedly denies that trans women have the same rights as biological women – hence their belief that the documentary contains content that represents, as they put it, “a clear attack on trans people’s identities”.

Not surprisingly, the Edinburgh branch of the academics’ union, the University and College Union (UCU), helped coordinate the protest to shut down this screening, even though it was organised by some of its own, fee-paying members. “It’s big and we’ve only just started. No to hate on campus,” the branch later boasted on Twitter, before proudly adding the hashtag TransRightsAreHumanRights.

Some people – academics, in particular – may find it difficult to square those comments with the ‘policy’ section of UCU’s website, where the union states that it is “committed to promoting and protecting the academic freedom of its members and of UK higher education institutions, and campaigns locally, nationally and internationally against threats to such freedoms”.

SNP MP and member of the FSU’s Scottish Advisory Council Joanna Cherry KC said the film being cancelled – for a second time – was “an absolute disgrace”. She condemned the fact that “women [are] being prevented from talking about their rights at my alma mater” and called on Edinburgh University to “get your act together and support freedom of speech” (Telegraph).

The screening was organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Academics For Academic Freedom (EAFAF) group. Organisers first tried to show the film last December, but a similar protest by the same groups forced them to reschedule.

EAFAF is now calling for the University to convene a meeting between both sides to “take the temperature down” and facilitate a screening of the film (Times).

A spokesperson for the group said: “My view is, we have a conflict of rights: what do you do when you have a conflict of rights? You have a reasonable discussion about how that is resolved. We should be having sensible, adult dialogue.”

Reacting to the latest successful deployment of the ‘heckler’s veto’ at Edinburgh, a spokesperson for the University insisted that the institution is “fully committed to upholding freedom of expression and academic freedom and facilitating an environment where students and staff can discuss and debate challenging topics”.

The spokesperson added: “We are disappointed that again this event has not been able to go ahead. However, with protesters restricting access to the venue, safety concerns were raised should the event proceed. It was therefore decided that the screening should not continue.”

“What more could possibly be expected of us?” the University seems to be saying, stifling a yawn and holding up its hands, palms outwards, as it does so.

And yet there is something the institution could now do, namely, launch an investigation into the conduct of those students (and academics) involved in shutting the screening down. After all, Section 13.5 of the University’s own Student Conduct Code prohibits “conduct which unjustifiably infringes freedom of thought or expression whilst on University premises or engaged in University work, study or activity”.

St Andrews University spending £235k per annum on EDI, nothing on free speech

The authorities who run Scotland’s oldest university have been criticised for spending nearly a quarter of a million pounds a year on equality and diversity staff but nothing on protecting freedom of speech (Herald, Times).

St Andrews has five members of staff tasked with promoting and protecting progressive ideology and now faces calls to create similar roles to defend academics and fight censorship.

Figures obtained by the campaign group Alumni For Free Speech (AFFS) show St Andrews is spending £235,189 a year on a head of equality, diversity and inclusion, a deputy head, two diversity and equality advisers and an assistant.

Andrew Neish KC, co-founder of AFFS and a graduate of St Andrews, questioned why so much was being spent on staff to “impose” ideological positions on issues such as transgenderism, while nothing was being ringfenced to protect the free speech of staff and students.

Academics and graduates have been raising concern about free speech at St Andrews after it was revealed the university has introduced compulsory training on equality and diversity which students must pass to matriculate (Mail).

The university, which has been rated by the think tank Civitas as among the most restrictive on free speech, has refused to disclose the contents of the training.

St Andrews says it has an “unwavering commitment” to freedom of speech.

But Honorary Research Fellow at Edinburgh University Neil Thin, who was targeted by students over his opposition to the renaming of university’s David Hume Tower, said senior managers had to do more than simply assert the principle of free speech.

Speaking to The Times, Dr Thin said that although “most people would agree to free speech in principle, in practice it gets threatened by self-censorship which follows in the wake of overt, aggressive, denunciatory attacks on individuals or censoring of debates. So you need to do more than just assert the principle, you need to discourage self-censorship and encourage openness and free debate.”