Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter, our summary 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 us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Cambridge Union U-turns over “blacklist” of banned speakers

The President of the Cambridge Union apologised for a speech made by Andrew Graham-Dixon during a debate on good taste, in which the art historian and broadcaster used “derogatory terms” while impersonating Hitler. Graham-Dixon himself apologised for several of his comments, saying they were offensive “even in quotation”. The offending speech can be read here.

Although Graham-Dixon won the debate, the Union’s president Keir Bradwell said a blacklist of banned speakers would be created – to include Graham-Dixon – and shared with other debating societies. The decision was labelled “Stalinist” by former Union president and author Andrew Lownie, and “pathetic” by scientist Richard Dawkins, who said university should foster and encourage free speech and free thought. John Cleese withdrew from a talk he was due to give at the Cambridge Union in protest, and asked to speak at a venue “where woke rules do not apply”. Louis de Bernières asked to be added to the blacklist in solidarity, writing that academics and artists should volunteer for such lists in order to boycott universities and institutions that practice cancel culture. Harry Clynch in the Spectator said the episode was sadly “utterly unsurprising” and that the Union had a “poor track record when it comes to defending free debate”.

Following the furore, the Union president reversed the decision and told the Telegraph: “Obviously announcing a U-turn looks silly. I was just a 21-year-old who tried to make the situation better. There is no policy to ban anyone for what they are going to say – it’s a free speech institution. If there is a dichotomy between free speech and offence, I would defend free speech. I don’t want to create an impression that the Union is against free speech.”

Nina Power in the Telegraph said the latest farrago at Cambridge was life imitating art, in reference to the Netflix show The Chair in which a professor does a Nazi salute to illustrate authoritarianism in a lecture – in a way that cannot possibly be misunderstood as an endorsement of Nazi ideology – and is then suspended when a clip of him doing so is circulated online.

Limit needed on investigations into historical social media posts

Our founder Toby Young argued in his Spectator column that there needs to be a statute of limitations for those remarks you can be investigated for by your employer, as “scarcely a week passes without someone being cancelled for historical social media posts”. Referring to the allegation that the former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan said something racist to three fellow cricketers 12 years ago, Toby wrote:

This affair illustrates one of the difficulties of accusing a person of saying something racist more than a decade ago: that people’s memories become less reliable over time. If someone was tried in a criminal case 12 years after the fact and the only evidence was the testimony of a prosecution witness, it would be difficult for the jury to conclude that the defendant was guilty beyond reasonable doubt – particularly after the witness had been cross-examined by a skilled defence barrister. But no such protections exist in a workplace investigation, where the test is the balance of probabilities. How will the independent panel set up by Yorkshire decide whose recollection is more accurate, Rafiq’s or Vaughan’s? I don’t envy them that task.

If you know of someone who’s been penalised for exercising their lawful right to free speech, or been discouraged from doing so by a school, university or employer, please get in touch with our case team here.

New free speech university founded in Austin

Professor Kathleen Stock is to be among the inaugural fellows at the University of Austin, a new American university that has set out to welcome “witches who refuse to burn” and promote academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Announcing the initiative, Niall Ferguson wrote in Bloomberg that legacy institutions have become ossified and intolerant: “Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Preferred pronouns. Checked privileges. Microaggressions. Antiracism. All these terms are routinely deployed on campuses throughout the English-speaking world as part of a sustained campaign to impose ideological conformity in the name of diversity. As a result, it often feels as if there is less free speech and free thought in the American university today than in almost any other institution in the U.S.”

Professor Eric Kaufman of our Advisory Council said Britain too needs new universities that promote academic freedom, but that we mustn’t give up on reforming existing institutions or on new laws, such as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will restore free speech and academic freedom on campus. Joanna Williams said the new initiative put existing universities to shame, as they have been captured by various equality schemes which dole out awards “to universities for compliance with directives inspired by critical race theory”. Andrew Mahon, a former case officer for the Free Speech Union, has written a book about whether young people should even go to university, and last week spoke about it on an episode of the podcast Thor Holt Presents.

Daniel Kalder wrote in UnHerd that Austin is becoming the global capital of free speech. A poll of Americans found that majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents think cancel culture is unfairly punishing people.

“Kathleen Stock amendment” to protect academics from campaigns to oust them

A so-called “Kathleen Stock amendment” has been suggested to improve the Higher Education Bill – currently before Parliament – by offering protection to academics who face targeted campaigns of harassment and intimidation. Professor James Tooley, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, told the Telegraph that two peers are ready to submit an amendment when the House of Lords debates the legislation.

Professor Stock wrote for the Spectator about life as a heretic and her “new sense of freedom”. She said: “I am on the left – or at least, a version of the left that doesn’t involve trying to get employees sacked by bosses, which may or may not be the left as we now know it.” She also spoke on ITV about her situation, and the diversity of views among trans people which are not presented by the campaign groups who claim to speak on their behalf.

Professor Jo Phoenix of the Open University was compared by a colleague to a racist for her views on gender, she told the Telegraph. She is now suing the OU for its failure to protect her after two years of harassment for her beliefs.

David Starkey spoke about academic freedom for a video on his new YouTube channel. Please do subscribe.

Dr Somdeep Sen cancelled a planned talk at Glasgow University after managers tried to vet his lecture, to be delivered on his book Decolonising Palestine, apparently to ensure it did not break anti-terrorism laws, the Times reported. The attempt to probe his talk came after an intervention from the university’s Jewish society, which complained that the talk risked compromising the safety of Jewish students.

Student Sophie Watson of the Free Speech Champions spoke to Andrew Doyle of our Advisory Council on GB News about the work of her fellow Champions in promoting free speech within universities. On his GB News show Free Speech Nation, Andrew gave an excellent definition of what cancel culture is.

Watch: Wokus Dei with Professor Frank Furedi

We hosted Professor Frank Furedi for an online membership Speakeasy last month. He spoke about the origins of the Great Awokening, the meaning of “woke”, and the capture of our institutions by woke ideology. You can watch the full video here.

Israeli ambassador hounded at LSE event

Student demonstrators pursued Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely from an event at the London School of Economics as she was evacuated by security personnel. The events were widely condemned, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “We in Britain believe in freedom of speech. The treatment of Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely last night and the attempt to silence her was unacceptable.” The Ambassador has vowed not to be silenced.

Ian Austin wrote in the Telegraph that woke antisemitism is widespread on campus, contrasting the reception for the Israeli ambassador this week with the warm welcome offered to Colonel Gaddafi in 2010.

Government and corporations push “pronouns” on staff

The Ministry of Defence has instructed officials to state their preferred gender pronouns at the beginning of meetings, the Times reported. The practice is reportedly also mandated at Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The MoD has paid Stonewall £80,312 over five years. We will try to assist any member who is compelled to state their pronouns against their wishes. Meanwhile, it has been revealed that Foreign Office officials approved the Department’s membership of the Stonewall Champions scheme without approval from ministers.

Marks & Spencer has started giving staff badges displaying their “pronouns”, including “he/him/his”, “she/her/hers”, and “they/them/theirs”. The company has said the badges were optional. According to Mercy Muroki, people should be able to label themselves however they want, but it’s not transphobic to refuse to use ungrammatical invented pronouns, and nobody should be compelled to use such terms. Lloyds of London has issued a 29-page guide to staff on creating a “stable emotional work environment” for trans colleagues, which recommends asking someone what pronouns they prefer to use, and Goldman Sachs provides “education on what the different types of pronoun are”. The practice of asking employees to list their pronouns is spreading across workplaces, including in the City.

Jo Bartosch asked in Spiked why the army was so busy fighting the culture wars rather than preparing for actual wars. The same question has been asked of the American military by Republican senator Josh Hawley, who accused the Biden administration of having turned the military into a giant “social experiment” and of pushing critical race and “white rage” theories on service personnel.

BBC leaves Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme

The BBC has left Stonewall’s widely criticised Diversity Champions programme, citing impartiality concerns. In a statement, the BBC said it remained committed to “LGBTQ+ inclusion” but that participation in Stonewall’s Champions schemes had led to questions as to “whether the BBC can be impartial when reporting on public policy debates where Stonewall is taking an active role”.

The broadcaster’s recent efforts to restore impartiality in its content are welcome, wrote Caroline Ffiske, but its style guide’s section on gender urgently needs reviewing. She highlighted the practice of the BBC, and other news outlets, of referring even to convicted rapists who identify as women as “she”.

Feminist fightback against trans overreach

Maya Forstater wrote in UnHerd that too broad a ban on conversion therapy risks prohibiting therapists from questioning patients’ claims about their gender identity. She warned: “If a child of any age declares that they are definitely trans, then a therapist, teacher, parent, social worker or anyone else who engages in a talking therapy that doesn’t affirm them as the opposite sex would face the threat of prosecution.” Feminist groups in Scotland are arguing against guidance that would allow census respondents to choose their own gender, rather than declaring their sex as it appears on their birth or gender recognition certificate.

According to Gareth Sturdy in Spiked, an Edinburgh primary school’s “Wear a skirt to school day”, designed to break down gender stereotypes, highlights why gender identity must be kept out of the classroom.

Critical race theory can’t survive contact with the voters

Isabel Logan wrote in the Conservative Woman about our dossier, handed to the Education Secretary, that identified 15 schools where critical race theory (CRT) and white privilege are being taught as fact. CRT will doom Biden’s Democrats, wrote our Director Douglas Murray, following the upset Republican victory in Virginia, where the teaching of white privilege in state schools became a key election issue.

Meanwhile, police are mad to be investigating posters stating “It’s okay to be white” as a “hate incident”, wrote Charlie Peters in Spiked.

Arts, theatre and culture

Roy “Chubby” Brown will not take legal action over the cancellation of his event at Sheffield City Hall, even though evangelical preacher Franklin Graham had overturned a similar ban, the BBC reported.

The Barbican Centre is introducing compulsory anti-racism training after a review found “stereotypical assumptions about race” among staff.

A character in Al Smith’s play Rare Earth Mettle is to be renamed from Hershel Fink to Henry Finn after complaints that the evil capitalist billionaire was clearly intended to be a stereotypical Jewish financier. The Royal Court Theatre has apologised.

Alexander Adams wrote in Spiked on the history of the paternalism that lies behind censorship, citing the Chatterley trial lawyer who asked, “Is it a book that you would wish your wife or your servants to read?”

Samuel Paty was failed by the French state

David di Nota was interviewed in Spiked about his book – soon to be translated into English as I Executed a Hellhound – about the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty by a jihadist. He said: “Leaders in the education establishment chose to give into the demands of a few outraged parents and instructed Paty to apologise. They ignored the fact that the accusations of Islamophobia being made against him were false and were being spread online by a known Islamist. The initial handling of the affair led them to fatally underestimate the seriousness of the threats against Paty.”

Survivors of terrorist attacks and their families have published a list of recommendations to curtail media reporting of “injuries, methods or gruesome imagery, and to limit the naming of terrorists”.

Online Safety Bill will usher in new era of censorship

Hugo Rifkind warned in his Times column that the Online Safety Bill will have a chilling effect on free speech. He cited the occasion when he was “banned from Twitter for telling a self-declared Nazi to stick a cactus up his bottom. According to the email they sent me, I had been ‘advocating self-harm’”.

Richard Desmond has instructed lawyers to demand that Wikipedia remove the word “pornographer” from his biography.

Culture war

The journalist and writer Jon Ronson spoke to the Sunday Times about cancel culture and the culture wars, which he says will burn out soon. James Marriott, referring to Ronson’s podcast on the culture wars, Things Fell Apart, wrote in the Times about the economic grievances and insecurity that fuel the culture wars.

In a review of John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism: How A New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, Daniel Gullota in the Critic praised the book’s analysis of wokeism’s success in filling a “religion-shaped void”.

Meghan Markle calls for tabloid “warning label”

Meghan Markle has suggested that tabloids should carry “a warning label like cigarettes do, like ‘This is toxic for your mental health’”.

Battle of Ideas’ Academy Online

The Battle of Ideas charity’s Academy Online returns on Saturday 13 November to discuss The Elite – Old And New. Cultural and political elites regularly mock the idea of a free speech crisis, yet simultaneously exercise enormous power to decide what speech is acceptable and what should be punished. But who are these elites, what gives them power and how should we understand them? 

Talks will cover topics such as the rise of the cultural elite, the Stonewall story, and the takeover of institutions. Speakers include Claire Fox and Professor Frank Furedi, who recently spoke to FSU members. The event is free to attend, with a suggested donation. More details can be found at Academy Online IV: The Elite.

Forthcoming comedy night

This week’s comedy night was a great success, and we are delighted to be hosting a second comedy night in association with Comedy Unleashed, the home of free-thinking comedy. Join us in London on Wednesday 15th December. The line-up will be different from this week’s event.

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A reminder: if you’re a working academic and haven’t yet joined the Free Speech Union, or if you know somebody who should, we’ve put a special offer in place: if you join, you can claim a £10 rebate. To be eligible, you must join for the full annual amount of £49.95, and select ‘Academic’ in the dropdown menu asking what profession you’re in. Offer ends on 20th December.

Best wishes,

Benjamin Jones


Case Officer