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 weekly podcast out now!

The latest episode of the FSU’s weekly podcast, That’s Debatable!, is out now, with hosts Tom and Ben joined by special guest and author, Matt Johnson, to discuss his debut book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. Click here to join them as they discuss the enduring impact of Christopher Hitchens on contemporary liberal thought and how his intellectual courage can rejuvenate the Left in today’s age of counter-enlightenment.

In this clip from the episode, Matt talks about what, in his new book, he describes as the “sinister bullsh*t” of identity politics, and why it’s so “alarming” that the western Left is now in thrall to this essentially illiberal political philosophy. As he explains, it’s the sort of thing that Hitchens roundly rejected throughout his career, viewing any retreat into our “tribal categories” as “a really dangerous and backward form of politics”.

Whether you’re a long-time admirer of Hitchens or new to his work, this episode promises to engage and challenge, offering fresh perspectives on the role of liberalism in our society.

You can download the episode in full by clicking 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.

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 people 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 categorically 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. 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 newsletter.

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 different values to the silent 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, Matt 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 Matt: 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. Matt’s book will be on sale on the night and he’ll 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.

FSU intervenes at Oxford University over attempted Kathleen Stock no-platforming

The FSU has written to the University of Oxford to complain about the decision by Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) to ban the world-famous Oxford Union Debating Society (OU) from having a stall at the next freshers’ fair, seemingly in response to the OU’s refusal to no-platform the gender critical philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock (BBC, Guardian, Spiked, Telegraph, Times).

You can read our letter in full here.

This latest outbreak of censorial student behaviour first erupted in April when the university’s LGBTQ+ Society said it was “dismayed and appalled” that the debating society had “decided to platform the transphobic and trans exclusionary speaker Kathleen Stock” (Mail, Spiked).

Pursuing a now well-worn cancellation tactic, in which the preservation of the student body’s psychological safety is positioned as the supreme categorical imperative, the LGBTQ+ society accused the Union of “disregarding the welfare of its LGBTQ+ members under the guise of free speech”.

The Junior Common Rooms of Christ Church, St Edmund Hall, St Anne’s and St Hilda’s all subsequently backed the LGBTQ+ society and passed motions calling for Kathleen’s invite “to be rescinded in support of the trans community”.

Last week, OUSU upped the ante when it passed a motion to sever ties with the 200-year-old debating society. The move would prevent the Union from having a stall at the freshers’ fair, which is an important source of membership sign-ups that fund the debating society (Telegraph). In its defence, OUSU says the severing of ties with the OU is entirely unrelated to the “transphobic” Kathleen Stock event, which was “dismaying” and “appalling” its officers only a few weeks ago. OUSU knows its own business, of course. On the other hand, the FSU knows a thing or two about the subtleties of campus cancel culture.

That’s why, in our letter, we make a formal complaint that OUSU officers have broken the University’s rules protecting free speech in their ham-fisted attempt to attack the Union. As we point out, a minority of student activists shouldn’t get to silence dissenting views for everyone else.

The letter goes on to explain why OUSU’s decision is a prima facie breach of the University’s Freedom of Speech Policy, as well as its Code of Practice on Meetings and Events, and asks the Oxford Proctors to investigate OUSU’s officers under the University’s Code of Discipline.

The President of the OU, Matthew Dick, is under significant pressure to rescind the invitation to Dr Stock – not just from OUSU and its LGBTQ+ Officer, but from other student societies, as well as the junior common rooms (or JCRs) of several colleges (Mail, Oxford Mail, Times). If he did so it would be a calamity, not just for the OU but for Oxford University as a whole, damaging its global reputation as a bastion of free speech and academic freedom.

Should the University’s response to our letter prove unsatisfactory, the FSU will consider applying to judicially review the University in the High Court for failing to comply with its legal duties as set out in the Education (No.2) Act 1986 and the Education Act 1994.

In our letter we also point out to the University’s senior administrators that under the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, which the FSU campaigned for, Oxford University Students’ Union will soon be under a duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech.

FSU writes to St John’s College over cancellation of student film screening

The FSU has also written to St John’s College and the University of Cambridge, urging the College to reinstate a screening of Stephen Shaw’s film Birthgap – Childless World, arranged by student and writer Charlie Bentley-Astor (College Fix, TalkTV). Ms Bentley-Astor had invited the film’s director, Stephen Shaw, to discuss the film with students as part of the screening, which was due to take place on May 12th.

Sensing an opportunity for a spot of campus witch-ducking, however, student activists busied themselves with block booking tickets under false names and threatening loud protests outside – all apparently for the ludicrous reason that Shaw had previously appeared on Dr Jordan Peterson’s podcast.

In addition to this campaign of disruption from fellow students, Ms Bentley-Astor had to contend with increasingly onerous stipulations from St John’s officials, including a demand that she pay all security costs related to the event.

As she was unable to cover these costs, the FSU stepped in and offered to pay the sum of £528 via the Mactaggart Programme, a new grant-giving project that we administer, which offers funding to individuals, societies and other groups that wish to provide opportunities for debate, open discussion and intellectual exploration.

Having met this demand, she was then asked to provide a risk assessment and to undertake to control any protest that might take place against her own event.

This Kafkaesque exchange became even more absurd when Joseph K – or rather, Ms Bentley-Astor – duly submitted the risk assessment, only to be told that “the risk assessment has further highlighted the large scale of the planned protest for this event and the disruption it would inevitably cause” and that the event would therefore have to be “postponed”.

In our letter, we point out that the actions of St John’s fail to uphold the College’s duties with respect to freedom of speech, or to observe University regulations on the same.

We also sought assurance that the event could go ahead and reiterated our commitment to meeting all relevant security costs.

As it happens, Ms Bentley-Astor was able to put together a much-curtailed version of the event. In scenes that would have graced any clandestine meeting of dissident academics in Soviet Russia, 25 of the 160 originally registered attendees managed to squeeze themselves into the offices of a Fellow at another College who was so outraged at the cancellation that they offered up their rooms for free at the last minute. Although there wasn’t space or equipment for a screening to take place, the impromptu event did at least afford students a valuable opportunity to discuss the film with Stephen Shaw.

The event as originally intended will now go ahead on 30th May, but sadly not at St John’s College – another venue has been booked.

As our letter to the College concluded: “It would be a damning indictment of St John’s if an event as uncomplicated as this [gets cancelled] because of the threats of a handful of student activists.”

Christian teacher urged to talk about beliefs – then sacked for hate speech

Over the weekend, the Mail on Sunday carried news of Ben Dybowski, a teacher at The Bishop of Llandaff Church in Wales school, whom the FSU is supporting. (He’s a member.)

As reported, Mr Dybowski was encouraged to share his Christian beliefs at a staff-only diversity and inclusion training seminar run by Diverse Cymru, an organisation that trains teachers on ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘trans, gender identity and gender expression awareness’. Having taken trainer and self-described ‘bisexual activist and change champion’ Ele Hicks at her word when she described the session as a “safe space” in which to “speak freely”, Mr Dybowski duly did so.

During a ‘break-out’ discussion about how to avoid offending pupils, the teacher challenged the group over whether his Christian beliefs were considered discriminatory. He told them he believed marriage was between a man and a woman, that life began at conception, and that he was opposed to some aspects of sharia law such as the stoning of men for homosexuality.

No doubt you’ve already guessed where this is all leading; but even so, the pace at which the #bekind brigade managed to get Mr Dybowski fired is still fairly shocking.

Less than 24 hours after the session had ended, Mr Dybowski was summoned before the school headmaster, Marc Belli, and sacked for “hate speech”.

Mr Dybowski, who has an unblemished 20-year career in the profession, started at the school through a teacher employment agency last October.

Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, he said he had never discussed his views with pupils and was always respectful of those with different opinions. His dismissal was, he added, “an attack on Christianity” and “an affront to freedom of speech and freedom of thought”.

FSU General Secretary Toby Young told the Mail that “the way Ben has been treated is outrageous. Had he been an employee of the school, not taken on through the agency, he’d have an open and shut case for unfair dismissal.”

Toby also had some advice for Mr Belli, the school’s headmaster: “apologise”. And that’s not just because in Christian theology, caritas – or “man’s love for man” – constitutes one of the seven virtues and, as per 1 Corinthians 13, is held as the ultimate perfection of the human spirit. Of course, that thought should already suffice to fill with remorse the headmaster of an institution that takes as its name ‘The Bishop of Llandaff Church in Wales school’. But just in case any further, vulgarly materialistic incentive were required, Toby went on to remind Mr Belli that “discrimination based on religion or belief breaches the Equality Act 2010,” and that in such cases, “damages aren’t capped, and individuals can be held liable”.

Teachers’ son Mr Dybowski grew up in Poland but has lived in Britain for almost two decades. “I remember well the final decade of communism there, with all of the limits on liberty and free speech,” he reflects, before adding: “Sadly, some things in Britain now remind me of that period.”