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 send a follow-up letter to your MP!

We were relieved that the King’s Speech didn’t include a bill banning conversion therapy – and want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all those members and supporters who used our campaigning tool to urge their MP to ask Rishi Sunak to think again about introducing such a bill.

Unfortunately, we’re not out of the woods yet. It looks likely that either the Labour Party, or a Conservative MP who’s been lobbying for this measure, will try to resurrect a conversion therapy ban via an amendment to an existing bill.

To see off this threat, the Prime Minister may offer to publish a draft bill so it can go through pre-legislative scrutiny and be ‘oven ready’ after the General Election.

We think that’s extremely dangerous – it would make a conversion therapy ban inevitable, whoever wins the election. As an organisation, we’ve been lobbying hard against such a bill – and thousands of our members and supporters have also joined the fight, using our digital campaigning tool to email their MP to urge them to consider the unintended consequences for freedom of speech if ‘conversion therapy’ is criminalised. Remember, conversion therapy, as commonly understood, is already illegal in this country – what the bill’s advocates would like to see criminalised goes far beyond this. For chapter and verse, see our home page.

Because this danger has not gone away, so we’re asking you to send a new, follow-up letter to your MP, reiterating your concerns. The link to the campaigning tool is 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.

Bob Stewart MP convicted of ‘hate crime’

Veteran Tory MP Bob Stewart was convicted of a hate crime last week, after being deemed to have committed a “racially aggravated public-order offence” during an altercation with a heckler on the street (Express, Telegraph, Times). According to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) press release, “he used racist language towards the victim”, and demonstrated “racial hostility likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to those present at the time”.

Anyone reading that description of Mr Stewart could be forgiven for conjuring images of a card-carrying member of the National Front who regards everything that’s happened in Great Britain since Emperor Claudius’s invasion in AD 43 as evidence the country has ‘gone to the dogs’, and who has been reduced to eking out what meagre pleasure he can from the squalor of multicultural life via gratuitous public displays of extreme prejudice.

And yet raw footage of the incident reveals that the reality was rather different.

A video recorded by Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei from the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, shows him confronting Mr Stewart last December while the MP was leaving an event organised by the Bahraini embassy at the Foreign Office’s Leicester House.

Mr Alwadaei, who is off camera, can be heard accusing Mr Stewart of “selling” himself to Bahrain (the former Army Officer was stationed in Bahrain in the 1960s). Visibly annoyed, Mr Stewart responds: “Get stuffed. Bahrain’s a great place. End of.” A fractious exchange ensues, and at one point Mr Stewart can be heard telling Mr Alwadaei to “Go back to Bahrain”.

All part of the rough and tumble of democratic politics, you might think. Animal spirits. Rowdy persiflage. A boisterous kerfuffle. The sort of thing that, in the trite but irresistibly gnomic parlance of the tightly shirted modern football pundit, would be dismissed with the word ‘handbags’.

And yet the Metropolitan Police saw things differently – so much so, in fact, that when a complaint was lodged by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy regarding Mr Stewart’s off-the-cuff one-liner about Mr Alwadaei “going back to Bahrain”, they scurried off to launch an investigation.

The sorry denouement came last week at Westminster Magistrates’ Court. Asked during the one-day trial how Mr Stewart’s comments made him feel, Mr Alwadaei replied: “I feel that I was dehumanised, that I was someone who is not wanted in the UK. I did not feel safe after that incident.”

Following the trial, Mr Stewart was found guilty of racially abusing a member of the public, convicted of a racially aggravated public order offence and fined £600. The court also let it be known that Mr Stewart would have been fined just £400 had it not been for “the seriousness of the hate crime he committed”.

As cautionary tales about the perils of perception-based policing go, it could hardly be improved upon. Writing for Spiked, Fraser Myers makes the point that the fact the CPS ever considered this spat to be serious enough to warrant prosecution nicely demonstrates that what constitutes a ‘hate crime’ is determined not by any objective criteria, but by the sensitivities and political biases of those working for the state.

Labour and the Lib Dems have since led calls for Rishi Sunak to act against what they describe as the “totally unacceptable” and “dangerous” behaviour of the backbencher – although the former Army Colonel has now cleverly outmanoeuvred them both with a masterful retreat, surrendering the party whip until a possible appeal against his conviction is resolved (Sky News).

If you’d like to help Mr Stewart cover his fine and all associated legal costs, click here. The veteran MP served in the Army for nearly 30 years, including stints in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, and has pledged to donate to the Royal British Legion any amount above the level needed to meet his costs.

Latest episode of the FSU’s weekly podcast out now!

In this week’s episode, hosts Tom and Ben discuss the government’s new, worryingly broad definition of ‘extremism’ and why it could have unexpected and troubling consequences for free expression.

Also on the agenda is the heartening case of parent and FSU member Clare Page, who continues her fight to gain access to teaching materials used at her daughter’s school for sex education lessons. (You can find out more and donate to her CrowdJustice campaign here.)

Tom and Ben wrap things up with a fascinating section on the woke tantrum that followed Australia’s ‘Voice’ referendum, with the country’s decision to return ‘the wrong answer’ and reject proposals to create an advisory body to Parliament exclusively for Aboriginal Australians being blamed on an electorate hooked on ‘misinformation’ – a term that now seems to perform the same face-saving function for progressives as ‘false consciousness’ once did for hard-Left Parliamentary candidates (normally just after a grim-faced election campaign manager had sidled up to them at the count to confirm that, no, the Presiding Officer hadn’t missed any noughts off their tally, and yes, they’d just lost their deposit).

As Tom points out, this form of self-exculpatory reasoning would be laughable were it not for the fact that it points to a growing tension between identity-based politics that demands ‘justice’ for beleaguered minorities, and democratic forms of government that vest power in the will of the majority. (Although, to complicate things, a significant minority of Aborigines voted ‘no’ to the Voice.)

The link to download the episode in full is available 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 purchase 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.

Government’s proposed new ‘extremism’ definition an “unwarranted attack on free speech”

An investigation by the Observer has revealed controversial new proposals to broaden the government’s definition of extremism to include anyone who “creates a permissive environment for radicalisation, hate crime and terrorism”. This has met with fierce criticism from civil rights groups who fear it represents “an unwarranted attack on free speech”.

Prepared by civil servants working for cabinet minister Michael Gove, the new definition features in internal departmental documents marked “official – sensitive” which state that the proposed definition could “frame a new, unified response to extremism”.

The existing, non-statutory definition of extremism, which underpins the government’s Prevent counter-extremism programme and has been in place since 2011, states that extremism is:

Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

Under the proposed new definition, by contrast, the existing definition is effectively recapitulated before an additional, much broader clause is added. Extremism thus becomes: 

[T]he promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values; or threaten the rights of individuals or create a permissive environment for radicalisation, hate crime and terrorism.

According to the Observer, some Whitehall insiders are now concerned that this broader definition “could be used against legitimate organisations fiercely opposed to certain government institutions or calling for their abolition”.

Martin Bright, editor-at-large at Index on Censorship, is also warning that this “unwarranted attack on freedom of expression” could “potentially criminalise every student radical and revolutionary dissident”.

Is it a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Speaking to the Telegraph, Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said the police were making insufficient use of existing laws that are perfectly capable of tackling extremists. The 1986 Public Order Act, for instance, already contains provisions designed to outlaw the stirring up of racial hatred by groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The FSU’s case files include multiple examples of ordinary members of the public being branded extremist for their entirely reasonable, perfectly lawful opposition to elements of the new woke orthodoxy.

For instance, we once went to bat for Kellie-Jay Keen after her petition on Change.org asking the Oxford English Dictionary to retain its definition of a woman as an “adult human female” was removed on the grounds that defining a woman in that way is ‘hate speech’.

As that anecdote demonstrates, the concept of ‘hate speech’ is incredibly nebulous and ill-defined, and, as a result, susceptible to subjective, highly partisan interpretation.

Should we really trust politicians to determine what is and what isn’t ‘hate speech’ – or ‘extremist’ – without weaponising it to advance their own political agenda?

FSU event on free speech and the right to protest – get the free Zoom link here!

On Thursday 23rd November, the FSU will host a timely and important event to discuss how the law should seek to balance the right of pro-Palestinian protestors to express their views with the right of British Jews to go about their daily lives without feeling threatened.

This event, titled ‘Getting the Balance Right: Free Speech and the Right to Protest in the Current Moment’, takes place at a highly charged moment.

Since the massacre committed by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7th, public spaces around the UK have seen an upsurge in pro-Palestinian protests. While many demonstrators seek to express their sympathy with ordinary Palestinians, a number seem to have greeted Hamas’s atrocities as inspiration for ‘jihad’.

As a result, British Jews have experienced an unprecedented spike in antisemitic abuse and attacks, with many reporting that they fear venturing out in public, sending their children to school or even attending vigils for those still held hostage by Hamas.

So how should the law seek to balance the right of protestors to express their views with the right of British Jews to go about their daily lives without feeling threatened? Are current laws adequate or do we need stronger laws against the expression of support for extremist groups? And is the Home Secretary right to suggest that the police are extending a degree of latitude to pro-Palestinian protestors that they wouldn’t extend to protests for other, less fashionable causes?

Joining us to grapple with these questions will be a panel of eminent legal experts, with speakers already confirmed including the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Ken Macdonald KC, the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall KC, and the FSU’s Chief Legal Counsel, Dr Bryn Harris.

Due to limited capacity, the in-person event is invitation-only for a specialist audience, but FSU members are invited to watch the event live, online, by registering for the Zoom link here!

Why are libraries hiding gender critical books?

The FSU’s Research Officer, Carrie Clark, has written a great piece for Spiked summarising the key points from her recent research briefing on soft censorship in England’s local authority libraries – a briefing that as the Telegraph rightly noted, constitutes the first widespread snapshot of the effect censorious trans activists are having on our book borrowing choices.

Members and supporters may recall that back in August it emerged that following receipt of a ‘formal grievance’ from a single member of staff, Labour-run Calderdale Council (metropolitan borough population: 206,600) removed a variety of books – all critical of gender ideology and transgender activism – from public view at the Council’s 12 public libraries and placed them out of sight in an off-limits storage space.

It was in this context that the FSU decided to take a closer look at how the wider public library sector is approaching freedom of speech on controversial issues of interest to the public.

In her article for Spiked, Carrie returns to ‘patient zero’, as it were, to consider Calderdale Council’s recently published review of its decision to start dabbling in soft censorship.

As was widely reported in the media at the time, the review determined that the books in question could come out of deep storage on the proviso that they are no longer promoted to library-goers (GB News, Telegraph, Yorkshire Post).

Something that was missed, however, and that Carrie has now spotted buried away in the details of the report is an admission that when the story about the Council’s removal of books by renowned feminist authors like Helen Joyce and Kathleen Stock first broke, “a group of staff from the library service made a collective complaint stating that the recommendation to remove the books was a departure from policy and professional ethics. The staff have asked that the books are returned to libraries’ open access shelves.”

As Carrie says, “Good on those staff for defending intellectual freedom and the right of library-goers to think for themselves. The last thing the public needs are more patronising attempts to police what we read.”

Kind regards,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer