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.

Latest episode of the FSU’s podcast now available!

In this week’s episode of our weekly podcast, That’s Debatable!, hosts Tom Harris and Ben Jones, celebrate the FSU’s first use of the Mactaggart Programme to support Bristol University’s “Women Talk Back” event. They also discuss the number of transgender related cancellations that have taken place over the last seven days, from outrage at Professor Stock in Oxford to a rather predictable reaction from the Irish Eurovision band ‘Wild Youth’. Finally, they dive into the FSU’s ‘naughty lists’, highlighting the UK institutions that appear most frequently in our case data.

You can download the latest episode 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.

Live event with Prof Matthew Goodwin – book your tickets here!

We’re delighted to announce the first events in our summer season!

On Wednesday 7th June, we will be hosting “Whose values? Whose voices? Are we being silenced by a ‘new elite’?” featuring Professor Matthew Goodwin, a member of our Advisory Council.

Professor Goodwin’s latest book, Values, Voices and Virtue: The New British Politics, has stirred up lively discussion about whether a ‘new elite’, with values alien to the majority, is becoming a dominant cultural force in Britain. Stepping into the middle of the culture wars and offering an analysis that is critical of both left and right, the book has succeeded in opening up debate about the causes and impact of populism, the nature of power and class identity, whether society can cohere around shared values, and how democracy can be revived.

We have brought together a great panel to discuss the book with Matthew: Professor Geoffrey Evans of Oxford University, Baroness Claire Fox and journalist Sherelle Jacobs. FSU General Secretary Toby Young will be chairing the discussion.

There will also be an audience Q & A and plenty of time to socialise afterwards, so if you can get to London, it’s a great opportunity to meet the speakers, as well as the FSU staff and other members. A welcome drink is included in the ticket price and the bar will stay open after the debate. The book will be on sale on the night. Tickets can be purchased here.

FSU Summer Regional Speakeasy in Cambridge – tickets now available!

If you live in the Cambridge area, the first of our Summer Regional Speakeasies will take place there on Thursday 15th June. Journalist and writer Jane Robins will interview Toby about his perspective on the battle for free speech, and much more. There will, of course, be plenty of time for socialising with fellow free speech supporters. FSU members can book tickets FREE of charge for themselves and their friends. Non-members pay £10. You can book your places here.

FSU event on the return of blasphemy laws – tickets available!

A few in-person tickets remain for our next event, “Blasphemy Law by the Back Door?”, which takes place in central London on Wednesday 10th May. So please do book your tickets now to avoid disappointment (the link to purchase in-person tickets is here). FSU members who can’t get to London can join online – the Zoom registration link is available here.

Surrey the latest university to establish Stasi-like campus surveillance system

Criticising the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian Covid lockdown policy is a “microaggression” according to the University of Surrey’s new mandatory online training module, ‘Introduction to Race Equity’ (Telegraph).

The module’s China example quotes a Chinese student saying that their flat mates “don’t understand how the government [is handling Covid] – our community’s [way of] doing this, is really different from other countries – a very, very strict lockdown”.

Surrey’s hypothetical student, who seems to equate the free expression of divergent views in a western, liberal democracy with ignorance of the correct state-sanctioned facts, continues: “But you’re pretty focused on keeping yourself safe and also keeping other people safe – care more about others [by] staying at home for at least two weeks. If you look at the most serious cases, like Wuhan and the nearby areas, they controlled [the] virus pretty quickly. But we talked [about] this to our flatmates. They don’t understand this.”

There is no suggestion in the video that the reported conversation was foisted unwillingly or repeatedly on the speaker.

More than a dozen University of Surrey academics have now launched a fightback, and say the video is part of a wider institutional attempt to “morally evaluate academics” with new appraisal criteria that require managers to mark them on their pursuit of “fairer outcomes”, demonstrate “inclusive educational practice” and “actively champion initiatives to promote diversity and fairness in our community”.

In a letter to the university’s senate, the rebels describe the new marking criteria as an attempt at “policing conformity with controversial moral and/or political beliefs” of what they say, and even the readings they assign to students. Specifically, in relation to the training module, they warn that they could be “deemed non-inclusive” and subject to disciplinary action under the university’s new policies if they commit the “prohibited microaggression [of] criticism of the Chinese government’s Covid policies”.

So how will senior leaders manage to capture and – for disciplinary purposes – evidence these subtle, interactionally complex ‘microaggressions’ as they unfold in real time within the messy, day-to-day realities of campus life? Perhaps the most troubling aspect to this story is that students at the institution are now being encouraged to anonymously report any ‘undesirable’ staff seen committing these perceived slights to university authorities.

The FSU has legally represented many academics whose speech has been policed or silenced, and we are concerned about a growing trend in higher education institutions to utilise this form of surveillance – technically known as ‘sousveillance’ – in which members within a group monitor others within that same group, just like the Stasi’s system in East Germany during the Cold War.

At Trinity Laban Conservatoire, for instance, an online portal now allows students and staff to log microaggressions anonymously, asking the reporter for details such as the date of the incident and the “protected characteristic to which the micro-aggression related”. The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) recently placed QR codes around the school, allowing trainee actors, directors and technicians to report their tutors for any perceived slights or discrimination (Mail). The University of St Andrews also gives students and staff the option to report microaggressions anonymously online. Last year, the introduction of a similar reporting system was heavily criticised by Professors at the University of Cambridge. (Telegraph).

What makes sousveillance particularly insidious is that it leaves teaching staff to the mercy of the most hyper-sensitive (or vexatious) student in the seminar room, and openly cultivates a culture of fear-induced blandness.

Edinburgh venue no-platforms MP over “uncomfortable” gender critical views

SNP MP and member of the FSU’s Scottish Advisory Council Joanna Cherry KC has been no-platformed by an Edinburgh comedy venue after pro-trans venue staff refused to work the event – according to reports, her belief in the immutable biological reality of sex made them feel “uncomfortable”(Herald, Mail, Scottish Daily Express, Telegraph, Times, Unherd).

Ms Cherry had been set to take part in an “In conversation with…” event at The Stand in the Scottish capital, one of Edinburgh’s most famous comedy venues. However, she has now been told that the show has been axed after staff at the venue said they would refuse to work at the event because of her views on transgender issues.

Reacting to news of her cancellation on Twitter, Ms Cherry said: “It should not be possible for venues or their staff to no-platform lesbians of feminists who believe that sex is an immutable biological fact just because of our sexuality or our beliefs.”

“This is like a new form of McCarthyism,” she added, “where any lesbian or feminist, who doesn’t subscribe to gender identity ideology, is losing the ability to have a public platform and in some cases, losing their ability to earn a living.”

The Edinburgh South West MP, who chairs Westminster’s human rights committee, has been an outspoken opponent of the SNP’s plans to allow Scots to change their legal sex simply by signing a declaration, which she believes would put the rights of women and girls in danger.

In a strong leader, the Times said that “Cherry’s right to hold and express gender-critical views is protected in law.” Roddy Dunlop KC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, agreed: The Stand’s decision was “plainly unlawful”, he said, before adding: “Is the venue aware that they would be vulnerable to a discrimination claim?” (Herald).

Mr Dunlop went on to reference the case of Franklin Graham, the evangelist preacher recently awarded nearly £100,000 in damages after his event booking at Glasgow’s Hydro arena was cancelled when the venue came under pressure from the LGBT community over Graham’s traditional views on marriage and sexuality (we’ve written about that case here).

According to the Guardian, Ms Cherry is now “considering her options”, but would prefer to resolve the issue privately rather than take legal action.

Whatever the legal ramifications of this episode, The Stand’s events staff have certainly done their bit to consolidate a growing woke tradition for younger, millennial workers in the cultural and creative industries to chide older, more senior staff into cancelling any forms of culture that they happen not to like for political reasons.

From overwrought Amazon employees prostrating themselves on the floor at so-called “die-ins” to protest the company’s sale of allegedly ‘harmful’ transphobic books (Bloomberg), to LGBTQ+ venue workers primly refusing to host an academic conference because certain speakers hold views that don’t align with their values (Scottish Daily Express), through to sensitive staff at the Old Vic successfully lobbying bosses to scrap Terry Gilliam’s latest musical production because his views on the immutable, biological reality of sex make them feel – again that word – “uncomfortable” (Mail), the latest generation of activists seem to care more about their own intellectual solipsism emotional safety than free speech or freedom of expression.

Is there any hope that this form of progressive illiberalism is little more than a passing fad; an idée fixe of the kind that does sometimes fleetingly take hold of society’s less well-adjusted minds?

Not according to Prof Eric Kaufmann. Writing for Unherd, he describes the steady erosion of free speech values in western liberal democracies as “generational”, with surveys consistently finding that “woke” values are twice as prevalent among younger Leftists than older Leftists. In other words, what we’re witnessing at venues like The Stand is reflective of a “transformational current of illiberalism, guided by the generations who will one day form our elite”.

Bristol: cancellation of Women Talk Back meeting: similarities with Steven Greer case

As many of our members and supporters will be aware, the FSU recently scored a significant success at the University of Bristol. When university bosses ordered the university’s Feminist Society, Women Talk Back, to contribute to the security costs for a panel discussion on “advocating, litigating and protecting women’s rights”, the event nearly fell through – but in an important victory for free speech, the FSU was able to intervene to save the event thanks to our Mactaggart Programme

The matter won’t be left there, however. Campaign group Alumni For Free Speech (AFFS) considers that Bristol contravened it obligations to secure free speech relating to the event, and will now be taking the issue up with the institution directly.

AFFS says that Bristol’s failures are very similar to those it committed in the case of Professor Steven Greer, until recently a law professor at the prestigious Russell Group institution.

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’. A five-month inquiry led by a senior academic at the university found that BriSoc’s allegations were baseless, although the institution then cancelled Prof Greer’s module anyway.

Despite university administrators asking both parties to keep the investigation confidential, BriSoc also decided to engage 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.

Many of those who organised or took part in the attacks on Prof Greer were in breach of Bristol’s free speech statement, and therefore committed misconduct under its rules. Yet Bristol failed to actively enforce its own free speech statement or rules, despite being legally obliged to do so.

AFFS have since written to Bristol about those events and their letter makes depressing reading, detailing the institution’s extraordinary failures to enforce its own free speech code and rules. AFFS will now be reporting these failures to the Office for Students.

You can find out more about the AFFS’s campaign here.

Prof Steven Greer was interviewed by Dr Taj Hargey at a recent FSU event about being forced into hiding and living in fear of his life in the wake of the initial student complaint – you can watch the video in full over on our YouTube channel here.