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.

Free speech fightback underway at Oxford over Kathleen Stock event

There was news of a heartening free speech fightback at Oxford University, as attempts by censorious student activists to no-platform gender critical philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock, and punish the society that invited her to speak on campus were thwarted (Times, Telegraph).

That’s thanks in part to the FSU – over the last two weeks we’ve kept up the pressure on senior administrators at the University, pointing out to them that a minority of student activists shouldn’t get to silence dissenting views for everyone else, and that many of those activists have in fact breached the University’s rules protecting free speech, as well as its Code of Practice on Meetings and Events.

In a letter to the Telegraph, over 100 Oxford students condemned the harassment, bullying and threats made against the Oxford Union debating society for inviting Dr Stock to speak and declared: those at the university who wish to silence free speech “do not speak for us” (Telegraph).

Forty-four Oxford dons also bravely put their heads above the parapet this week to write an open letter in support of Dr Stock’s right to express her views. The academics, ranging from well-known professors such as Richard Dawkins to younger lecturers who have recently graduated, are united by the belief that the right to free speech is sacred and has to be defended (Times).

Speaking to Arlene Foster on GB News, Toby Young pointed out that the best thing for student trans activists to do now would be to attend the event. “If you disagree with her, come and argue with her; come and discuss your disagreements in the debating chamber,” he said.

Let’s hope there’s an event for them to attend. The most pressing issue now is to make sure the event actually goes ahead, and that the protestors aren’t granted a heckler’s veto by security staff. According to reports, up to 1,000 protesters are now preparing a campus picket to protest the event on 30th May.

Sharron Davies MBE Book Launch – book your tickets here!

Of all the issues thrown up by the rise of gender ideology and the push for trans-inclusivity, safety and fairness in women’s sport is probably the one that has most grabbed mainstream public attention. And yet, too often, debate has been shut down and those who raise questions accused of ‘transphobia’. One of the most stalwart campaigners on the side of keeping women’s sports for women is British Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies MBE.

We are therefore delighted to have been asked to host the official launch of Sharron’s new book, Unfair Play: The Battle for Women’s Sport, on Wednesday 5th July. Join us online or in-person in central London to hear from Sharron about why she wrote the book and the struggles she’s faced to get her arguments heard.

We have brought together a superb panel to discuss the issues with Sharron, including Dr Emma Hilton, the award-winning development biologist who has advised various governing bodies on transgender policy in sport, including World Rugby, and Cathy Devine, an independent researcher who has published widely in the areas of sport policy, equality and human rights for girls and women over the last 15 years.

In the chair will be the FSU’s Education and Events Director, Dr Jan Macvarish.

There will be an audience Q&A and plenty of time to socialise afterwards over a complimentary glass of wine, courtesy of Swift Press. The book will also be on sale on the night and Sharron will be signing copies.

In-person tickets with a discount price for FSU members can be purchased here. Members who prefer to watch the event online can register to join free of charge here. And non-FSU members who prefer to watch online can pay £5 to register 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 our General Secretary 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.

Equality watchdog head Baroness Falkner victim of civil service “witch hunt”

Trans activists and their allies in the (at least nominally) politically neutral civil service have been accused of participating in a “witch-hunt” (Mail), a “hatchet job” (Mail), or – for those who like their violence served with a veneer of post-enlightenment civility – a “coup d’état” (Mail) against the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Baroness Falkner, after the equalities watchdog recently advised the Government to change the definition of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act 2010 to better protect women’s rights.

Activist employees at the EHRC are said to have compiled a dossier, setting out more than 40 complaints aimed at Baroness Falkner by a dozen current and former colleagues (Telegraph).

Staff relations at the equalities watchdog “are said to have soured”, as the Mail puts it, “after [Baroness Falkner] backed legal reforms guarding the rights of biological women in single-sex spaces such as hospital wards and toilets” in a move that “infuriated trans activists”.

The problem with well-meaning descriptions of this kind, in which Baroness Falkner is portrayed as having given her apparently unsolicited “backing” to legal reforms, or elsewhere as having “stood up to gender ideology” (Unherd), is that they overstate the case, positioning the EHRC’s Chair on one side of a complex, increasingly fractious public debate regarding the legal significance of biological sex. In so doing, they unwittingly cede too much ground to the trans activists.

It was the Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, who earlier this year asked the EHRC for advice on whether the Act needed to be changed to make the law clearer. In a letter to Baroness Falkner, she raised concerns about the “increasing contestation of how the term sex is understood in law and practice” as well as “the consideration about whether the definition of ‘sex’ is sufficiently clear and strikes the appropriate balance of interests between different protected characteristics”.

Baroness Falkner replied to the minister in April, outlining not her own, but the EHRC board’s conclusions. “On balance,” the letter said, “we believe that redefining ‘sex’ in the Equality Act to mean biological sex would create rationalisations, simplifications, clarity and/or reductions in risk [in certain areas]. It therefore merits further consideration.”

“There is no straightforward balance,” Baroness Falkner continued, “but we have come to the view that if ‘sex’ is defined as biological sex for the purposes of the Equality Act, this would bring greater legal clarity in eight areas. These include pregnancy and maternity, freedom of association for lesbians and gay men, freedom of association for women and men, positive action, occupational requirements, single-sex and separate-sex services, sport and data collection.”

Writing in The Times, Baroness Falkner was quick to caution that although this change would bring clarity in a number of areas, it could also introduce “potential ambiguity” in others. The Government, she concluded, would need to do “further work” and “consider the potential implications” of a biological definition of sex for trans people before making changes to the law.

In other words, the Chair of the EHRC’s board acted with professionalism, impartiality and integrity throughout.

Not that any of that mattered to trans activists and their allies in the civil service. As Andrew Pierce notes, “the reaction from the well-funded trans lobby was co-ordinated and savage, with the flood of vitriol on social media particularly offensive” (Mail). There have also been several departmental leaks to left-leaning media outlets, branding Baroness Falkner a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and “transphobic”. According to one EHRC source, the civil servants doing the leaking are “young, liberal… often with different political world views [that] are used to being treated with kid gloves” (Telegraph).

Speaking of left-leaning media outlets, Channel 4 News recently broadcast what it said was evidence of a “toxic culture” at the EHRC and the “consternation” at Baroness Falkner’s leadership, claiming that one in four staff left the watchdog last year, including two in five LGBT employees.

Drawing on leaked documents and statements, the publicly-owned broadcaster quoted a number of current and former staff members, with one saying “staff were crying” on calls. One of these young ‘liberals’ alleged “there is a lack of psychological safety, i.e., the fear of who will be attacked next”, and that “unacceptable behaviour” by Baroness Falkner was “becoming normalised”. Another took issue with someone rolling their eyes.

More than 40 members of the House of Lords from across the political spectrum have now written to Ofcom to complain about Channel 4 News’s “one-sided” report (Mail). 

In a move likely to cost taxpayers up to £120,000, the employment barrister, Gavin Mansfield KC, of Littleton Chambers, has now been drafted in by the activist employees to investigate the complaints (Times). Lady Falkner, meanwhile, is having to pay tens of thousands of pounds from her own pocket for her own KC.

The FSU has dealt with many vexatious, ideologically driven workplace harassment claims across numerous different sectors, where innocent people have faced targeted complaints designed to silence them because of their non-woke views. That’s why we stand in solidarity with Baroness Falkner. It’s time activist employees stopped weaponising anti-bullying and anti-harassment clauses in workplace codes of conduct to bully and harass colleagues whose views they disapprove of.

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. This week hosts Tom and Ben discuss, among other things, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which has now received Royal Assent, the FSU’s new Mactaggart Programme, which is already enabling individual groups to fight back against the nefarious soft cancellation tactics deployed both by protesters and university authorities, and Sir Salman Rushdie’s damning verdict on modern literary censorship.

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.

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.

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’s staff and other members. There won’t be a Zoom link 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.

Martin Amis, writer, 1949-2023

Sir Salman Rushdie has led the tributes to Martin Amis, who has died aged 73 following a battle with cancer.

The author redefined British fiction during the 1980s, pioneering “a high style for writing about low things – fast food, sex shows, nude mags”, as he put it in an interview with the New York Times Book Review in 1984 (or “breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself”, as his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis once suggested). It was a style that reached its apogee in Money, the novel named by the Guardian’s Robert McCrum as among the 100 best novels written in English. “Even dirt,” as John Self, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, reminds us, “has its patterns and seeks its forms”.

Sir Salman paid tribute to Amis, telling the New Yorker: “He used to say that what he wanted to do was leave behind a shelf of books – to be able to say, ‘From here to here, it’s me.’ His voice is silent now. But we have the shelf.”

Amis’s UK editor, Michal Shavit, said: “He will be remembered as one of the greatest writers of his time and his books will stand the test of time alongside some of his favourite writers: Saul Bellow, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov.”

It would be stretching the truth to portray him as a champion of freedom of expression in the mould of, say, Salman Rushdie or Susan Sontag. But he had his moments, and never more so than when it came to defending art from timebound politicised moralising.

There was, for instance, the dinner party contretemps with the then Prince of Wales over the latter’s refusal to support Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah issued a fatwa against him in 1989. The Satanic Verses had insulted the deepest convictions of those who adhere to the Islamic faith, Charles said, and it followed that the author of such a book deserved very little sympathy. “A novel doesn’t set out to insult anyone,” Amis shot back. “It sets out to give pleasure to its readers. A novel is an essentially playful undertaking, and this is an exceedingly playful novel.”

Amis was also quick to defend Philip Larkin back in the 1990s, when the founding fathers of what we now call cancel culture were hellbent on posthumously cancelling the poet for alleged “racism”, “misogyny”, and “quasi-fascist views”. (The “really rather nasty” Larkin “seems to me more and more minor”, A.N. Wilson observed, in a piece titled: “Larkin: the old friend I never liked.”) “It sometimes seems,” Amis said, “that the basis of the vexation is that Larkin was born in 1922, rather than more recently.”

In 2020, Amis also joined other notable literary figures – including Margaret Attwood, Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling – in signing an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine that defended freedom of expression against the censorious woke mob.

The letter warned of an increasingly “intolerant climate” that was “stifling” the “free exchange of information and ideas” in liberal societies. “The way to defeat bad ideas,” the letter continued, “is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

The heated reaction to the letter among the puritanical commentariat was grimly predictable.

Neatly serving to prove the letter’s point, many rushed to assert that cancel culture didn’t exist, while at the same time implying that the letter’s signatories should now be, er, cancelled, for associating themselves with figures like JK Rowling – or, as Vox journalist Emily VanDerWerff put it, “anti trans voices”.

Would this backlash have surprised Martin Amis? It seems unlikely.

“What we eventually run up against,” he told his audience during a 1997 lecture on political correctness, “are the forces of humourlessness, and let me assure you that the humourless as a bunch don’t just not know what’s funny, they don’t know what’s serious. They have no common sense, either, and shouldn’t be trusted with anything.”

Rest in peace, Martin.