Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a brief round-up of the free speech news of the week.

Jess de Wahls: Royal Academy cancels, then un-cancels gender critical artist

We welcome the Royal Academy’s U-turn over Jess de Wahls, the artist whose work was removed from the gift shop because of a 2019 essay saying she didn’t think transwomen are women and which was inevitably branded “transphobic” by woke activists. After a media outcry, the RA eventually issued an apology and strongly hinted de Wahls’ work would be put back on sale. The artist spoke to Freddie Sayers about her experience for an episode of UnHerdTV. She has received death threats since the case went public.

De Wahls should never have been cancelled in the first place, but at least the RA recognised how badly it had mishandled the situation – and we can hope that the adverse reaction to its decision in the media serves as a warning to other arts organisations thinking of cancelling controversial artists at the behest of Twitter mobs. The RA’s apology is worth reading in full. Rather than a boilerplate, PR-speak apology, it says: “Plurality of voices, tolerance and free thinking are at the core of what we stand for and seek to protect. These events raise some fundamental issues. Freedom of expression can open up debate, create empathy or respect for difference, it can also at times cause hurt and outrage. This has confirmed to us our commitment to freedom of expression and to addressing complex issues through engagement and debate.”

We agree with the Times’s view of the episode: “Artistic liberty and free expression are not contingent on the degree of upset they may cause. It is precisely when a public figure encounters an outraged reaction that those principles are most in need of being scrupulously upheld.” Times columnist Janice Turner wrote of the danger of allowing junior communications staff to steer institutions into censorship in response to a Twitter mob. Peter Franklin asks in UnHerd if we’ve now reached “peak progressive”.

The answer is almost certainly no. Scottish Ballet is reviewing its repertoire to ensure it does not “cause offence to gypsies and travelling people”, the Times reports.

Free speech rally blocked by Batley Council

Batley Council has blocked a planned free speech rally to show support for the teacher who is still in hiding after he showed pictures of the Prophet Mohammed to children at Batley Grammar School. The rally was due to be held in advance of the Batley and Spen by-election on 1st July. Officials said the event had not been cleared by the “Safety Advisory Group” and – despite being held outside – would not be Covid-secure. This is in spite of the fact that the Council did nothing to prevent large groups of Muslim protestors gathering outside the school gates back in March.

Pupils at Batley Grammar School have updated their petition in support of the teacher. We join them in asking the authorities to do everything in their power to make sure this teacher – and his family – can resume their normal lives.

We wrote to the Department for Education in March urging the Education Secretary to add freedom of speech to the fundamental British values that schools are required to promote. The DfE has responded, arguing that “the importance of freedom of speech” is already covered by “British values” so there’s no need to update the guidance. We disagree and will continue to campaign for an explicit duty to promote free speech in schools.

Sensitivity and censorship

The Oxford University Students’ Union is poised to unleash “sensitivity readers” on student journalists to vet their articles for “problematic” content. The use of “sensitivity readers” – morality cops who red-line anything likely to cause offence to designated victim groups – is increasingly widespread. Our founder Toby Young doubts his student journalism would have made it passed a sensitivity reader. Sarah Ditum in the Times writes that students should refuse to accept this sinister edict. Brendan O’Neill, writing in the Spectator, says: “Students should be outraged by the idea that they need sensitivity readers to guard their allegedly delicate eyes and ears from offence. It’s like having a mental chaperone, some technocratic know-it-all who will cleanse the press of certain ideas so that you never feel sad, challenged or conflicted.”

We recommend reading an article by Dr James Orr of our Advisory Council in the Critic, on “The battle between truth-seekers and social justice warriors at the top of academia”.

Edinburgh University has been in the headlines constantly for the sorry state of free speech on campus in recent months. Tom Devine spoke to several Edinburgh academics for the Spectator who expressed concern about this state of affairs – although, predictably, they all insisted on anonymity for fear of repercussions.

Divisive American racial ideas forced on British schoolchildren

Analysis by the Telegraph has found widespread acceptance of the concept of “white privilege” by local councils, who have included it in educational material for use in schools. It might well be appropriate for older children to debate these ideas, but “white privilege” should never be taught as if it’s an incontestable fact, and certainly not to children in primary schools, which is what’s currently happening. The negative effect of telling poor white boys they’re “privileged” has been documented in a recent report by the Education Select Committee.

It is not just Critical Race Theory that’s being foisted on schoolchildren, but, of course, gender ideology too. St Paul’s Girls’ School is to rename the role of “head girl” because it is “too binary”.

Meanwhile in America a cheerleader has won a landmark free speech victory against her school. Brandi Levy was aged 14 when she was kicked off a cheerleading squad for a “profane social media post” on Snap Chat. The US Supreme Court ruled by a majority of 8-1 that the school’s decision to punish her for something she said at home on the weekend breached her right to free speech under the First Amendment.

More women fall foul of the “no debate” approach to trans issues

Allison Pearson in the Telegraph takes aim at the persistent attacks on women and their right to express their gender critical beliefs. Lisa Mackenzie was a policy officer for the Royal College of Nursing when she was hounded out of her job for researching gender identity. At a meeting at Edinburgh University where she presented her research findings, the hostility towards her was so intense that one MSP said, “Never in more than 25 years of going to political meetings have I felt the intimidation that I felt then.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has been reported to the Speaker for “nasty behaviour” towards SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC. She claims his hostility is inspired by her gender critical views. Cherry has announced that she is returning to the bar to defend Scottish feminist Marion Millar who is being prosecuted for challenging trans orthodoxy on Twitter.

Former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption has written an article in the Times about the ever-increasing demands of those who “would like the law to protect them from the distress of being confronted by opinions fundamentally different from their own”.

The Online Safety Bill

Our recent FSU In-Depth event on the Online Safety Bill’s threat to free speech can be watched on our YouTube channel here. If you haven’t already, please join the FSU so you too can be invited to our members-only events. David Davis MP says the Online Safety Bill is a censor’s charter. Timandra Harkness has picked the legislation apart in UnHerd, singling out the “duty of care” that will be imposed on online platforms, effectively outsourcing censorship to private companies in America. She calls it a “duty of censorship”.

Sean O’Neill writes in the Times about the libel tourism killing free speech: “The UK has no constitutional protection for a free press.”

GB News

Our founder Toby Young wrote an op ed for the Mail on Sunday about the censorious activists trying to take GB News off the air. He said the struggle against the boycott is “a battle we have to win for the sake of our democracy”. The Express reported his comments. We have written to the companies which have stopped advertising on GB News after being mobbed by Stop Funding Hate’s online activists urging them to reconsider.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has made a positive intervention in this debate. Writing for the Telegraph he said: “A free media is one that has a diverse range of opinions and voices – and as I said earlier this week, GB News is a welcome addition to that diversity.” Nigel Farage has also welcomed the new channel.

Offence archaeology

First England cricketer Ollie Robinson was punished for historic tweets he sent as a teenager; now two more England cricketers – Eoin Morgan and Jos Buttler – are facing an investigation by the England and Wales Cricket Board. The bizarre allegation against them is that in a Twitter exchange in which they called each other “Sir” they were lampooning Indian cricketers.

Defending truth from trolls and cancellers: in conversation with Jonathan Rauch

In his 1993 book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Jonathan Rauch sounded an early warning about the threats to free speech. His new book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth argues that the enemies of free thinking may now take different forms, but are no less dangerous.

What, then, is knowledge? What is truth? Why is free speech the central pillar of liberal science? What exactly is the “constitution of knowledge” and is it strong enough to survive? Can Big Tech be trusted to guard against disinformation or are they just another group of powerful censors? How can we fend off the righteous mobs who gleefully ruin the lives of those deemed transgressors?

Join the Free Speech Champions – a group of young free speech advocates jointly sponsored by the Free Speech Union and the Institute of Ideas – to discuss these questions and many more with Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at the Atlantic. Jonathan and Inaya Folarin Iman, a former Director of the FSU and the founder of the Free Speech Champions programme, will be joined in conversation by writer and Free Speech Champion Daniel James Sharp, a recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh and the Arts and Books Correspondent of Areo Magazine.

Tuesday 6th July, 7.30-9pm. On Zoom. Register here.

For a taster, listen to Toby interviewing Jonathan Rauch about The Constitution of Knowledge for the Quillette podcast.

Debbie Hicks: handcuffed, arrested and charged after filming inside a hospital and posting the film on Facebook

Debbie Hicks, the anti-lockdown campaigner who was arrested after she filmed what appeared to be an empty hospital ward in December last year – and posted the film on Facebook – has been charged with a Public Order Offence. She is now raising funds for her defence. Whether you agree with Debbie’s views or not, this is an important free speech case – her legal team will be running an Article 10 defence – that deserves our support. Once donations to her CrowdJustice fundraiser climb above £3,000, the funds can be released to her defence team – so please give something. It is very nearly there.

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Best wishes,

Benjamin Jones

Case Officer