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.

Higher Education Bill passes Lords in big victory for academic freedom!

In a major victory for free speech on campus, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill got over the final hurdle in the House of Lords on Wednesday evening and will shortly receive Royal Assent.

This is a bill that the FSU has been campaigning for since it was created in February 2020. We lobbied for the bill when the Government was weighing up whether it was needed, advised the Government on what to include in it, defended it from critics in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, helped to amend it and, finally, mobilised our allies in Parliament to get it over the line.

The Bill does two things that will help secure academic freedom. 

First, it will impose a legal duty on higher education providers (HEPs) to uphold free speech and extend that duty to students’ unions. The Education (No 2) Act 1986 required HEPs to “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”, but the new Bill goes further. It will impose a duty on HEPs to actively promote freedom of speech, and to protect academics’ freedom to question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and express controversial opinions.  

Second, it will create two new enforcement mechanisms, so HEPs aren’t able to ignore these duties.

The first will be the appointment of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to the Office for Students (OfS), whom students and academics can complain to if they believe their speech rights under the Higher Education Act 2023 have been breached. This new ‘free speech tsar’ has already been appointed – it’s Dr Arif Ahmed, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge with impeccable free speech credentials – and he will have the power to fine HEPs if he finds them at fault.

The second enforcement mechanism is the creation of a new statutory tort, whereby students and academics will be able to sue HEPs in the County Court if their speech rights have been breached.

Taken together, this package of measures will go some way towards addressing the free speech crisis in our universities. About 20% of the 2,000+ cases we’ve dealt with in the past three years have involved universities, and we believe that in almost every one the student or academic who’s got into trouble would have been in a stronger position if this new law had been on the statute books.

Successive Conservative governments have been criticised for not doing more to protect free speech and that criticism is often deserved. But the Higher Ed Bill is something the present government can point to that will genuinely advance the cause of free speech. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s governments deserve credit for introducing this bill and piloting it through parliament, particularly those who’ve served as Education Secretaries during this period – Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kitt Malthouse and Gillian Keegan. Special thanks should also go to Claire Coutinho, the education minister tasked with getting the Bill over the line, which she’s done with aplomb.

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

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 debate 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’ve brought together a great panel to discuss the book with Matthew: Geoffrey Evans, Professor of the Sociology of Politics at Oxford University, Baroness Claire Fox and Telegraph columnist 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. Matthew’s book will be on sale on the night, and he will be signing copies.

There won’t be a Zoom link-up on this occasion, although the event will be recorded. We therefore encourage you to book tickets to the live event. 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.

The FSU would love to hear about your experiences of cancel culture!  

Thanks to your support, we’ve been helping to defend our members’ free speech rights for more than three years.

In that time, our in-house legal team, working with our casework team, has assisted more than 2,000 individuals in a huge range of different situations – and according to our Director of Data, Tom Harris, in 70% of those cases we’ve been able to achieve a successful outcome.

Small wonder, then, that we’ve gained a unique insight into cancel culture – and contrary to the tenets of woke millennial orthodoxy, we’re now in a position to state with absolute certainty that reports of its non-existence are greatly exaggerated.

That said, we’d like to gain even further insight by hearing from our newsletter recipients, both those who have been helped directly by our case team, and also any others who may have been affected by cancel culture, which is why we’re asking our members to complete this anonymous survey.

The results of this survey will be used to help us engage more effectively in the public conversation and to inform our in-house case work. By cancel culture, we mean the general cultural background that leads to situations where our legal free speech rights as citizens are put at risk or actively curtailed.

Please follow this link to complete the anonymous survey: FSU Cancel Culture Survey.

It should take no more than five minutes and we will share a summary of the results in a future FSU newsletter.

Living Freedom Summer School 2023 – apply now!

Applications are now open for Living Freedom Summer School 2023 which runs from 29th June to 1st July in central London. Applications close at 9am on Monday 15th May.

This year, the Summer School is supported by the FSU’s new funding stream, The Ian Mactaggart Programme, which is aimed at encouraging young people to discover the value of free speech. Questions up for discussion include: How should we respond when freedom of conscience threatens to undermine equal rights? What is a ‘critic’ and why should we listen? Is progress essential for liberty or a barrier to freedom? And what does it mean to be human in an age of artificial intelligence?

The three-day residential school is open to anyone aged 18 to 30 and represents a fantastic opportunity for young, critical thinkers to meet one another and debate the key freedom issues of our times. You can find out more and book your tickets – or a ticket for your child or grandchild – here.

Metropolitan Police admit ‘regret’ over Coronation Day arrests

The Met Police has expressed “regret” that six anti-monarchy protesters from the Republic campaign group were arrested ahead of the Coronation of King Charles III and decided that no charges will be brought against them (Express, FT, Mail, Sky News, Telegraph, Times).

FSU General Secretary Toby Young joined Emily Carver on GB News earlier this week to discuss the arrest of the CEO of Republic, Graham Smith, and five other activists from the campaign group, as they were about to go on an anti-monarchy demo during the King’s Coronation. Members of the group were planning to stand in view of the royal procession wearing yellow t-shirts, waving ‘#NotMyKing’ placards and chanting slogans – and the protest still went ahead, but without the key organisers.

Of particular concern about this incident, Toby said, is the fact that the protesters were handcuffed and had their ‘#NotMyKing’ placards confiscated. It seemed over the top for the Met Police to pre-emptively arrest the organisers of a protest, he pointed out, particularly when the protesters in question are members of a moderate campaign group like Republic: “The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to the British way of life, and should have been celebrated on Coronation Day, along with everything else we value about our society.”

Police have since confirmed that new powers under the Public Order Act 2023 were used to detain the protesters.

In a lengthy statement, the Met Police said it initially believed items found alongside a large number of ‘#NotMyKing’ placards could have been used as so-called “lock on devices”, which have been criminalised by this new legislation, chiefly because members of groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion have developed a narcissistic fascination with chaining themselves to things in the hope of causing mass disruption.

Republic vigorously disputed the police’s allegations, with one organiser telling BBC News that these alleged “devices” were just the straps used to package up the placards.

The Met Police now appear to have reached the same conclusion, having, as they put it, “fully examined the items seized and reviewed the full circumstances of the arrest”.

“Those arrested stated the items would be used to secure their placards, and the investigation has been unable to prove intent to use them to lock on and disrupt the event,” the Met’s statement continued, before adding: “This evening all six have had their bail cancelled and no further action will be taken. We regret that those six people arrested were unable to join the wider group of protesters in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere on the procession route.”

Was part of the problem here the Public Order Act? Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the Met’s statement, Conservative MP David Davis certainly seemed to think so. There are “too many elements” of this recently passed law “that are too crude and too broadly defined,” he said. The former minister later told the Commons that the Home Affairs Select Committee should now be invited to scrutinise the legislation “and come back with recommendations on how to change guidelines and perhaps laws”.

Former Greater Manchester police chief Sir Peter Fahy concurred. Speaking to the BBC, he suggested that “we s[aw] the consequences” of this lack of clarity during the Coronation, “particularly for the poor police officers who have to make sense of legislation that was only passed a few days ago”.

Whatever one’s view of the protesters, the timing of their protest, or even republicanism per se, it’s difficult to disagree with this wider point about the difficulties of operationalising law in general, and this legislation in particular. According to Part 1 of the Public Order Act, for instance, “a person commits an offence [of being equipped for locking on] if they have an object with them in a place other than a dwelling with the intention that it may be used in the course of or in connection with the commission by any person” of the offence of attaching themselves to another person, object or to land.

All of which does rather beg the question of when a lock-on device – as an “object” – is in fact a ‘lock-on device’ and not, say, a cable-tie for use with placards. The danger is that in a fast-paced, risk-laden operational context, hard-pressed officers won’t have time to play these Wittgensteinian language-games and will instead err on the side of caution, eschew nuanced definitional work, and simply arrest peaceful protesters along with those intent on causing disruption.

So the issue here goes beyond the politics of monarchy and republicanism. No one doubts the difficulty and expense of controlling large crowds, but ambiguous law makes for subjective policing. As the author Laura Dodsworth puts it, “a decent democratic country does not arrest people for unloading placards from a van”.

The latest episode of the FSU’s weekly podcast out now!

This week’s episode of That’s Debatable! was recorded in the midst of the media storm around the allegedly heavy-handed policing of King Charles III’s coronation, and so our hosts, Tom Harris and Ben Jones, took the opportunity to speak with Tim Cruddas, who is both an experienced police officer and a member of the FSU casework team.

This episode of the – ahem – ‘plodcast’ ranges from the inescapable tension between the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression, the practicalities of policing large public events, through to a historical perspective on successful (and some less successful) protests.

In this clip, Tom and Tim discuss the concept of “free speech within the law” and reflect on how the FSU is helping to challenge “bad law”, not just via the important work our case and legal teams undertake on behalf of members who’ve had their free speech rights infringed, but also thanks to our legislative endeavours, working with allies across both Houses of Parliament to strengthen legislative protections of free speech.

You can 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.

Edmund Burke Foundation Conference – book your tickets here!

The Edmund Burke Foundation invites FSU members to attend a conference on National Conservatism at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster on 15th-17th May.

Confirmed speakers so far include our Chairman Nigel Biggar, as well as FSU board member Douglas Murray, and FSU Advisory Council members David Goodhart, Juliet Samuel, Matthew Goodwin, Lord David Frost, Eric Kaufmann and James Orr, as well as former staff members Radomir Tylecote and Emma Webb and our very own General Secretary.

Tickets for admission to all three days are heavily subsidised and are selling fast (£25 for students; £50 for those aged 18-30; £115 for a standard ticket). Sign up to register here.