Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a brief round-up of the free speech news of the week.
Professor Andrew Tettenborn, member of the FSU’s legal advisory council, writes of a little-publicised but worrying decision that was made recently in the European Court of Human Rights with serious implications for free speech in the UK. Volen Siderov, leader of the Bulgarian political party Ataka, has been publicly critical of the Roma people in his speeches and writings throughout his career, which prompted an assembly of liberal and pro-Roma groups to undertake legal proceedings against him under Bulgarian anti-discrimination law. A Bulgarian court found that “Siderov, if intemperate, was not calling for discrimination against Roma people”, but the litigants appealed to the ECHR which upheld their appeal.
However abhorrent one finds Siderov’s views, this decision is concerning for a number of reasons, which Prof Tettenborn explores, including a reference to a new right to be weighed against the right to free speech, which the Court described as “a full human right to have someone else’s speech abridged”. Tettenborn continues: “The judges saw it as entirely unacceptable that Bulgarian courts had given ‘considerable weight to Mr Siderov’s right to freedom of expression’, and ‘play[ed] down the effect of those statements on the applicants as ethnic Roma living in Bulgaria’. Wow. Any free-speech traditionalist, who believes that the remedy for bad speech is more speech, should see this as a warning: as far as human-rights lawyers are concerned, you are on the wrong side of history.”
Why free speech matters
Accompanying the release of his new book Free Speech and Why it Matters, Andrew Doyle made the case for free speech in a piece for Spiked, in which he echoed John Milton’s contention in Areopagitica that “the freedom ‘to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience’ is the ultimate liberty”. Doyle’s launch event with Alastair Donald of the Academy of Ideas took place earlier this week and can be viewed on YouTube. His book can be purchased here.
Why it’s OK to Speak Your Mind, a new book by Hrishikesh Joshi, an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, will be released on the 9th of March. Drawing on Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and others, Joshi argues that “by bringing our unique perspectives to bear upon public discourse, we enhance our collective ability to reach the truth”.
Scottish Hate Crime Bill
According to an analysis by Free to Disagree, a Scottish free speech organisation, almost 85 per cent of published responses to a consultation by the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament supported stronger free speech protections in the Scottish Hate Crime Bill. Jamie Gillies, of Free to Disagree, said: “It’s vital that strong, clear and specific free speech protections are written into the bill.”
Prospect magazine has published a comprehensive analysis of the background to Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill and its free speech implications. Chaminda Jayanetti looks at the origins of hate crime law in the Public Order Act 1986 and addresses questions surrounding the stirring up of hatred, the likelihood that hatred will be stirred up, the proposed extension of protected characteristics in the Bill, as well as the expansion of hate speech law into private dwellings and the theatre. “Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill was meant to be a tidying up exercise that consolidated existing laws,” Jayanetti writes, but “despite the stated intentions, the Scottish government actually is extending the law’s reach.”
Policy analysis group Murray Blackburn Mackenzie have warned that the proposed legislation would make it criminal for individuals to assert that sex is binary. One of the group’s members, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, claims that the “government has frozen out the people most concerned about chilling effects in relation to sex and gender identity, consulting only with stakeholders that it heavily funds”, such as the Scottish Trans Alliance.
National Director of charity Care for Scotland Scott Weir examines the consequences of abandoning the dwelling defence, which protects speech in private homes. “We stand at the brink,” he says. “The Scottish Parliament dangles over the cliff edge freedom of thought and freedom of speech, to supplant it with a crushing law that will hem Scotland in.”
The FSU has written to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Law, Andrea Nollent, to express its concern about a section that was recently added to the University’s disciplinary policy which “will have the effect of encouraging, what is commonly called ‘sousveillance’ – the practice of one student informing on other students”. This is at odds with recent guidance issued by the Department for Education which stipulated that universities “should not encourage students to inform upon other students for lawful free speech”.
Writing in UnHerd, FSU Director Douglas Murray comments on the University of Glasgow’s cancellation of a seminar by Professor Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, in part because over 100 academics at the University objected to its title: “For Whom the Bell Curve Tolls: A Lineage of 400,000 Individuals 1750-2020 Shows Genetics Determines Most Social Outcomes.” According to Douglas, one of the familiar aspects of no-platforming is that the speaker’s critics claim “to know not only the content of his undelivered talk but also his intentions”. Douglas goes on to identify the “prevailing ethos” common to cancel culture: “It goes something like this: human beings are born with equal abilities, and any sub-optimal outcomes in their lives are caused by societal factors beyond their control but which can be adapted with enough collective effort.” Those who believe in this credo don’t stop to ask whether it’s true, but take it for granted that anyone challenging it must be a Social Darwinist or a eugenicist. Douglas thinks academics ought to be able to challenge that credo without being cancelled.
According to a recently established “anonymous testimonials website” called GC Academia Network – where GC stands for “gender critical” – some academics in UK universities “are self-censoring for fear of reprisals”, while others report being censured or investigated for transphobia merely for failing to announce gender pronouns or for liking or sharing tweets. Set up several weeks ago by two academics concerned about “a ‘no debate’ culture in academia”, the online forum has already received 120 submissions from academics who hold “gender critical” views.
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, has asked the Office for Students to investigate a new policy at Durham University requiring the students union to vet all external speakers deemed “high risk” (a euphemism for speakers with conservative or gender critical views). She said: “If it has been accurately reported in the press, the decision by Durham University is gravely disappointing and not in line with our high expectations for universities in this area. To give a student union this power over external speakers is wholly inappropriate: no university should ever grant a student union any authority or role in vetting, limiting or otherwise overseeing which external speakers may be invited to speak on campus, or under what circumstances they may do so.”
A new online newspaper has been founded at the University of Chicago by students Audrey Unverferth and Evita Duffy. The Chicago Thinker will bring some balance to what the two students see as a one-sided political culture at the University by presenting views from a conservative or libertarian perspective. Unverferth said: “We deserve a voice and it is really important that we do partake in the battle of ideas on campus.” The newspaper’s mission is to challenge “the mob’s crusade against free speech”.
Pregnant persons are mothers
“Pregnant persons” will now be referred to as “mothers” in a bill making its way through the House of Lords. The change was urged by Lord Lucas, who submitted 15 amendments, commenting: “The use of the word ‘person’ in the Bill as it is now erases the reality that, overwhelmingly, maternity is undertaken by women and not by men. To leave ‘person’ in place would be a step backwards in women’s equality.”
After his sacking from Iceland for what were intended to be humorous comments about Wales and the Welsh language, former Director of Corporate Affairs Keith Hann has responded with an article entitled “How trying to be funny cost me my job” in which he argues that the “cancel culture that is sadly becoming the norm in the UK is plain wrong”. Along with the complaints made to Iceland that led to his sacking, he has received abusive messages and death threats for offences such as calling the Welsh language “incomprehensible” and referring to it as “a dead language that sounds uncannily like someone with bad catarrh clearing his throat”.
Next generation of writers
In response to a question about authors dropped by their publishers for wrongthink, writer and Nobel laureate Sir Kazuo Ishiguro said he was concerned for the next generation of writers who self-censor for fear that an “anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”. He added: “Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish, or represent all kinds of views.”
Taboo to boo
FSU Deputy Research Director Emma Webb appeared on Talk Radio to defend the right of football fans to boo players taking the knee. She said: “Our argument is that if the footballers are allowed to take the knee and to express themselves in that way then the fans should also be allowed to express themselves – it has to be one or the other – and that the football association needs to issue guidance before fans come back into the stadiums to avoid people’s free speech being limited.” You can read our letter to the Football Association about this here.
The Bar Standards Board does not defend the freedom of barristers to criticise woke culture because it would be “likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in… the profession”, writes Jon Holbrook in The Critic. The barrister was recently expelled from his Chambers for tweeting: “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour.” He explains that “the reference to the pupil as being ‘of colour’ was unobjectionable and central to my criticism of the EHRC tweet. Moreover, a teenager who was sent home repeatedly for defying a school uniform policy that merely required her hair to be ‘of reasonable size and length’ can hardly grumble at being described as ‘stroppy’”. Holbrook argues that the leadership of the bar has revealed itself to be “infused with a wokeness that cannot tolerate its outspoken critics”.
The BBC is intending to air episodes of Fawlty Towers in next week’s Festival of Funny, but the racist lines of the character known as “the Major” will be edited out. When the BBC removed an episode from BBC iPlayer for the same reason last year, John Cleese commented: “The Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them. If they can’t see that, if people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?”
Channel 4 has dropped Ant Middleton, host of SAS: Who Dares Wins, for a tweet from last June that read: “The extreme left against the extreme right. When did two wrongs make a right … BLM and EDL are not welcome on our streets, absolute scum.” The ex-soldier subsequently deleted the tweet and apologised, but that wasn’t good enough for Channel 4. The broadcaster issued a statement saying it had “become clear that our views and values are not aligned”.
President Biden removed some of the books of Theodore Seuss Geisel, the children’s author better known as Dr Seuss, from the recommended list for Read Across America Day, which falls on Geisel’s birthday, the 2nd of March, because of their allegedly racist content. According to some critics, Horton Hears a Who! “reinforces themes of White supremacy, Orientalism, and White saviorism”.
Citing Wikipedia’s left-wing bias, a former co-founder of the website, Larry Sanger, is planning to launch a free speech-friendly alternative called “Encyclosphere”, which he describes as “an old-fashioned, leaderless, ownerless network, like the blogosphere”. At first, Wikipedia was “truly committed to neutrality” but has now become “propaganda” according to Sanger, whose goal is “to create a protocol that very loosely ties all the encyclopaedias online together”.
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