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 (although not if you’re reading this on a desktop). If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Gender conversion therapy ban – use our campaigning tool to write to your MP!

News that the Government’s bill to ban conversion therapy is back on the legislative agenda prompted a total of 24 figures from across music, film and fashion to write to the government urging minister to seize this “make or break moment” and make good on a promise originally made back in 2018 by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May (GB News, Sky News).

Co-ordinated by Stonewall, and signed by what the charity generously describe as “celebrities”, the letter says that “by letting the clock run out” the government is “letting down survivors and victims of abuse across this country” and “showing callous disregard for the harm faced by LGBTQ+ people”.

“Please do the right thing,” the letter urges Rishi Sunak, “and legislate for a complete ban on these horrific and life-altering practices.”

Needless to say, what we commonly understand by the phrase ‘conversion therapy’ is already illegal in the UK, such as trying to stop someone from being gay or transgender via exorcism, physical violence or food deprivation. Indeed, when the Government asked a research team from Coventry University to study the evidence on conversion therapy the only examples of “horrific and life-altering practices” it was able to find were drawn from the United States. As Mark Jenkinson, the Tory MP for Workington put it: “From all the published evidence, it is clear that current laws are sufficient to cover the vanishingly rare number of cases of conversion therapy.” (Telegraph)

Where things start to get more complicated is at the softer end of the spectrum if ‘conversion therapy’ is defined too broadly. For instance, in the state of Victoria in Australia, which banned ‘conversion therapy’ in 2021, it is a criminal offence for a religious leader to try to persuade a member of his congregation not to act on his or her sexual desire for a member of the same sex punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Even asking your congregants to pray for someone with these feelings can get you into legal hot water, and Victoria has issued guidance on what types of prayers are acceptable and unacceptable.

Just as worrying is the impact a ‘conversion therapy’ ban will have on the approach parents, teachers and medical professionals take to children confused about their gender. In the past few years, an ‘affirmative model’ has taken hold in clinical settings like the NHS’s controversial, soon-to-be-closed Tavistock Clinic. Faced with cases of gender distress, this model encourages clinicians to affirm rather than question a child’s chosen gender identity, before then putting them on a medical pathway that can have lifelong, irreversible consequences. 

The risk, then, is that a poorly drafted bill would effectively criminalise parents, teachers and clinicians who deviate from the “affirmative” approach, since trying to dissuade a gender-confused child from transitioning would be classed as a form of ‘conversion therapy’, as it is in Victoria. Even a carefully drafted bill would be in danger of being amended by members of the LGBTQ+ lobby as it went through parliament so it ended up banning any alternative to the ‘affirmative’ approach.

There is a whiff of Soviet-era Lysenkoism about any state sanctioned attempt to protect a supposedly scientific framework from scrutiny, but given that ours is a culture in which tolerance of dissent from gender identity ideology is already in short supply, it’s easy to see how a ‘conversion therapy’ ban that received Royal Assent could quickly be weaponised by trans activists.

That’s why the FSU is now lobbying hard against such a bill and urging Parliamentarians to consider the unintended consequences for freedom of speech if such a bill is brought forward. You can read what our General Secretary has to say about the issue in the current issue of the Spectator – and read the argument against such a ban on our home page.

Please join the fight by using our digital campaigning tool to write to your local MP, urging them to advise Rishi Sunak not to publish this bill – the link to the campaigning tool is here, and the process only takes a few minutes.

Thank you in advance for sending the email.

At the FSU, we seem to be engaged in a constant battle to stop the Government making it illegal for people to say what’s on their minds.

Act now to stop the Government making a terrible mistake.

Can Words Really Hurt – event video now available!

Our Edinburgh Speakeasy was recorded live on Wednesday 25th October at The Counting House venue. Joining us to discuss the threat posed to free speech by growing attempts to police ‘hate speech’ were Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Holly Lawford-Smith, legal commentator Kapil Summan, and Lecturer in Public Law at the University of Glasgow, Dr Michael Foran.

You can now watch the event on our YouTube channel by clicking here (and don’t forget to subscribe while you’re there).

Gender critical books “treated like Mein Kampf” by public libraries

Works by authors including Helen Joyce and Kathleen Stock were hidden from view libraries in the Labour-run Calderdale council and are now barred from being promoted in displays to protect the public from offence. The only other book similarly censored by the council’s library service? Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Telegraph).

The controversy began with an internal HR grievance lodged in January 2023 about gender-critical books on display in council libraries.

Calderdale’s library agreed to remove six gender-critical books from public view. Council documents indicate that staff had not previously taken such direct measures to conceal books, except on one occasion when “a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was moved to our stores following complaints from some customers some years ago”.

Authors are furious at the revelation that their gender-critical books, which defend the reality of biological sex, have been handled in the same way as the 1925 manifesto of the future Nazi dictator.

Dr Helen Joyce, the author of one of the six gender-critical books treated in this way, said: “I was disgusted, but not surprised, to discover that the only previous example Calderdale Libraries could give of hiding away a ‘toxic’ book concerned Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf.

“Its senior staff have apparently surrendered to the demands of trans ideologues to such an extent that when a crybully threw a strop about a top 10 bestseller on the subject of women’s, children’s and gay people’s human rights, they agreed to treat that book as if it was Nazi propaganda,” she added.

The incident in Calderdale prompted the FSU to look more closely at how public libraries are handling books expressing unfashionable points of view on issues of interest to the public. Our Research Officer, Carrie Clark, randomly selected 49 English local authorities with searchable online library catalogues and searched for 10 books – five titles written from a gender critical (GC) perspective and five from a trans rights (TR) point of view.

We found that the libraries in our sample stock more TR books overall and stock more TR texts than is justified by the low demand from members of the public to borrow these titles and not enough GC titles, given the much higher demand for them.

You can read the research briefing – Not on Our Shelves – Soft Censorship in Local Authority Libraries – by clicking here.

Christmas Comedy Benefit – tickets now available!

Our annual Comedy Benefit will take place just before Christmas on Wednesday 20th December. Our MC for the evening is FSU favourite Dominic Frisby and he’ll be joined on stage by a fantastic line-up: Francis Foster, Daniel O’Reilly, Tania Edwards and Alistair Williams. Come and let your hair down with the FSU staff as we celebrate another successful year defending free speech. Tickets here.

£10k essay prize for answering question: ‘Is a transwoman a woman?’

A new initiative co-founded by a member of our Scottish Advisory council, Kapil Summan, is offering a valuable prize to students who can write with nuance and academic rigour about a key issue in the increasingly fraught clash between trans rights activists and gender critical feminists (Times).

The inaugural Edinlight essay competition will ask undergraduates to explore the issue of whether transwomen are women, with the winning author receiving the £10,000 first prize and the two runners-up getting £1,000 each.

Scrawling “trans rights are human rights” on a piece of paper before rushing off to report any competitors who claim otherwise to their respective universities for ‘transphobia’ won’t be enough to clinch first prize, however, because all entrants must persuasively argue each side of the proposition.

The organisers of Edinlight, which is open to all UK undergraduates, have already stoked controversy with their explanation of the term ‘transwomen’ in the competition’s title – trans activists tend to use ‘trans women’ as two words, because that implies that men who transition become women, while radical feminists are more likely to write ‘transwomen’.

“It makes no sense for us to use ‘trans women’ [in the essay question] since it affirms the point we’re asking entrants to argue against,” Mr Summan said. “It is true that ‘transwomen’ affirms the opposite,” he conceded, “but we have to choose one.”

Mr Summan is running the competition with James Christie, founder of the Edinburgh Enlightenment Network. He said the competition was designed to “foster discussion and encourage nuanced thinking, both of which appear to have been in decline at universities over recent years”. The deadline for entries is 14th January.

Any students wishing to enter the competition can find out more here.

The FSU’s first South West Speakeasy – tickets now available!

We are delighted to announce the details of our first Regional Speakeasy in the South West of England. FSU members and the wider public are invited to gather for a debate and a drink in Exeter on Wednesday 29th November. You can get your tickets here.

Our speakers will be Professor Doug Stokes of the University of Exeter and Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, the director of the campaign group Don’t Divide Us. They’ll discuss what the campaign to ‘decolonise’ really means and consider its implications for truth-seeking, equality and freedom of expression.

We do hope that large numbers of members will be able to get to Exeter for this event, which will include a stimulating discussion and the chance to meet other free speech enthusiasts from the region. There will be a pay bar at the venue.

P.S. Members in the Cambridge area are invited to attend a gathering on Thursday 16th November of the Free Speech Cambridge group, where the special guest will be author and campaigner Laura Dodsworth. Tickets are free, but you must reserve a spot here.

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

Recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Ideas Festival 2023, hosts Tom and Ben discuss some of the fascinating conversations and heated debates they had over the weekend.

One of the talking points from the festival includes what the historian Russell Jacoby terms “social amnesia”. It’s a powerful idea, and one that leads co-host Tom Harris to reflect that the so-called ‘culture wars’ aren’t necessarily a distraction for those of us concerned to protect free speech and freedom of expression — as he says, once certain ways of life are swept away by woke identity politics, they get forgotten; and once they get forgotten, certain points of view, ideas, contributions to debates about society’s direction of travel (etc), get swept away too.

You can listen to that section of the podcast here (if you have X), and download the episode in full here.

FSU member Clare Page fighting for transparency in schools – show your support!

When FSU member Clare Page’s 15 year-old daughter returned home from school reporting that a recent sex education lesson, ostensibly about consent, had in fact taught that “heteronormativity” is harmful, and “sex positivity” is a good thing, she was understandably concerned.

This isn’t simply a story of a parent happening not to like something that their child is being taught for purely ideological reasons. Concepts of this kind have their roots in contested, deeply politicised theories of social life, which brings into sharp focus an important legal question regarding how children are being taught – specifically, the Education Act 1996 imposes a duty on schools “to prevent political indoctrination and secure the balanced treatment of political issues”.

Clare subsequently learnt that the lesson had been provided by an external charity called School of Sexuality Education (SoSE), which at the time had what she describes as “inappropriately explicit lesson plans” on its website, including links to a private company “which advertises sex toys, pornography and anal masturbation techniques to young people”.

At a time when controversial and contested views on gender identity are being taught as if they’re straightforwardly true, Claire felt it was important that parents at her daughter’s school are aware of what their children are being told – and indeed by whom.

Curious to know more about exactly what her daughter was being taught, and whether the teacher on SoSE’s website trying to sell sex toys and anal masturbation techniques was in fact the person delivering sex-education content to her 15-year-old daughter, Ms Page made a Freedom of Information request directly to the school.

Remarkably, it was declined on grounds of commercial secrecy for the charity and privacy for the teacher.

The indefatigable Ms Page then referred the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), but in a landmark decision the data watchdog backed the school’s choice to keep the lesson and teacher’s identity secret from parents, effectively prioritising the commercial interest of a third-party education provider over parents’ right to know what their children are being taught.

Ms Page believes the ICO made an unlawful decision that fails to uphold the school’s public service duties, compromises safeguarding and destroys the trust that is essential to schooling.

She is now planning to appeal the decision at a First Tier Tribunal, with the aim of overturning the ICO’s decision and establishing a ruling that the lesson resources used by her daughter’s school should be fully accessible to parents, and that commercial interests should not override the rights of parents.

If you can, please show your support by donating to Ms Page’s legal crowdfunder – the link to her page is here.

Kind regards,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer