Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. Like all of 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.

Join us for a night of festive funny!

Following the fantastic success of our first comedy night of 2021, we are offering members priority booking for our second, taking place on Wednesday 15th December – perfect timing for a pre-Christmas celebration of free-thinking comedy.

Our MC for the evening will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby, and he’ll be joined by comedians Leo Kearse, Mark Dolan and Joe Jacobs. Bringing some additional seasonal glamour, we have a special performance by global icon Vanity von Glow.

The Free Speech Union team will also be there, so do come and say hello. Round up your friends and family and buy your tickets now!

If you’re feeling especially full of Christmas cheer, please consider selecting the Ticket plus Donation option, which includes a £10 donation to the FSU.

Toby Young awarded Contrarian of the Year 2021

On Thursday, our General Secretary Toby Young was awarded the 2021 Contrarian Prize for championing free speech.

Academic Matthew Goodwin tweeted his congratulations, adding:

His Free Speech Union has not only gone against the grain but has strengthened the public square. Congrats Toby and his FSU colleagues.

In his Spectator column, Toby wrote:

It was in recognition of the work I’ve done in helping to establish the Free Speech Union and I accepted it on behalf of the staff and the directors, as well as all the people who’ve been good enough to support the organisation.

The fight for free speech in education continues

The University of Sussex faces an investigation by the Office for Students following the resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock after a campaign of intimidation and harassment. The watchdog will investigate whether the university met its obligations to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech.

In new guidance on reporting racism, Downing College Cambridge has encouraged students to report academics for “microaggressions”. The guidance states that “microaggressions are everyday acts that serve to subjugate people of colour in more or less covert ways”.

Philosophy lecturer Dr Arif Ahmed, a member of the FSU’s Advisory Council, told the Telegraph that the definition of racism used is “divisive and inflammatory”.

Encouragement to report ‘inappropriate’ or ‘offensive’ behaviour amounts to a snitches’ charter.

Any risk-averse white person will simply not engage with anyone from an ethnic minority, in case an innocent or well-meaning remark is overheard, misunderstood and reported.

Whatever Downing College may think, being offensive is not an offence.

The Free Speech Union has written to the Master of Downing College raising concerns about the guidance. Considering its similarity to the university-wide policy on reporting microaggressions published in May and subsequently withdrawn, we wrote:

We were disappointed to find that Downing’s new guidance – in what it asserts and promotes – appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce the same potentially unlawful policy through the back door.

Additionally, Wolfson College Cambridge has told new students they must complete a mandatory online anti-racism course on microaggressions, whiteness and privilege as part of their induction. The course states that “in society whiteness [is] centric”, and that “this involves whiteness being seen as the ‘default’ race and everyone else as being ‘other’”. Similar courses have been mandated elsewhere, including the University of Kent.

Following the mobbing of Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely at the London School of Economics last week, Leo McKinstry has writen in the Express about the return of McCarthyism:

The new incarnation is just as eager to crush its enemies but it is perhaps even more sinister because its fanatical campaign of intimidation is helped by the tools of modern technology, including social media and digital surveillance.

Responding to the treatment of Hotovely, Neil Wigan – the UK’s ambassador to Israel – has spoken out against the intimidation of individuals on university campuses because of their beliefs. He said:

Freedom of speech is absolutely fundamental and people should not be intimidated in this way. Ambassador Hotovely is clear that she will carry on engaging with British students and going to universities.

Holy Trinity Church of England Primary School in Richmond has removed the names of Sir Winston Churchill and J.K. Rowling as house names, claiming they are not diverse enough. Instead, the houses will be named after Marcus Rashford and Mary Seacole. Unhappy parents have accused the school of punishing “thought crimes”.

Students at Christ’s Hospital, a West Sussex fee-paying boarding school, are set to receive lessons on microaggressions, privilege and stereotyping, according to Michael Mosbacher in the Spectator.

The new University of Austin, Texas (UATX) has been hailed as the “university of dangerous ideas” following its launch last week. Our Advisory Council member Zoe Strimple wrote in the Telegraph:

It is not just another liberal arts college or small wacky outfit for the well-to-do, but a pedagogical battle cry now echoing the world over.

All this is further evidence of why the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is necessary. Our latest briefing on the Bill explains four ways in which the bill could be made even better.

Update on the gender debate

HBO Max has announced that J.K. Rowling will not appear in its special Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, which brings together cast members from all eight films. This is apparently an attempt to downplay J.K. Rowling’s role in the creation of the series following accusations of transphobia because she is a defender of sex-based women’s rights.

The SNP’s student and LGBT wings have called on the party leadership to remove the whip from Joanna Cherry QC, an SNP MP. These demands were prompted by a couple of tweets in which Cherry expressed her concern that the Prime Minister is receiving a one-sided view about gender identity and sex-based rights. She added:

And re. conversion therapy which any right-thinking person should oppose, we must not make it a criminal offence for therapists to try to help patients with gender dysphoria to feel comfortable in their birth sex. As we used to say, #Somepeoplearegay. #GetoverIt.

This was criticised by Kirsty Blackman, the SNP MP for Aberdeen North, who claimed Cherry’s views caused “harm”. Cherry defended her right to free speech, telling the Scotsman that the SNP has a

history of intellectual rigour and open debate and I trust that will continue, notwithstanding the personalised attacks and misrepresentation by some in my party. Sadly, calm and rational discussion has been missing from this area of public policy for too long.

This is a very subjective issue and it’s not an issue that everyone is going to be on board with.

Also, at the moment it’s an area that’s very political. So emails like this make you feel as if someone is pushing a particular agenda. We’ve had a few of these types of emails recently. We were sent something previously on ‘Asexual Day’.

The Home Office sparked controversy after instructing staff via email to celebrate Transgender Parents Day on 7th November. One employee criticised the email as “highly inappropriate”:

It bore no relevance to the work we do and nothing to do with the work of any branch of the Home Office.

Jordan Tyldesley, writing for the Critic, has raised concerns about a browser extension called Shinigami Eyes. The extension supports Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Medium, YouTube and Wikipedia, and through user contributions and algorithms colour-codes individuals according to their views in the gender debate – red for danger, green for safe.

The name originates in manga and anime, and means “the ability to see people’s names and remaining lifespan just by looking at them”. Developed by a trans person who also contributed to software called “Terf Tracker”, the extension “allows you to see a person’s trans acceptance orientation just by looking at them”. Non-profit Electronic Frontier Norway (EFN) has raised concerns that this may violate Article 9 of the GDPR, prohibiting registration of political views and philosophical convictions, and poses a threat to the safety of those concerned.

More on the Stonewall saga

Nikki da Costa, the former Downing Street Director of Legislative Affairs who stood down in August, told the Times that the Prime Minister’s most senior advisors are allowing Stonewall to directly dictate government policy, and that Johnson was being given “skewed” advice which is undermining women’s rights. Da Costa alleged that this is having a chilling effect, with staff being viewed as “difficult” by senior officials if they speak up. The problem reportedly extends to what the Prime Minister receives in his red boxes, and a refusal to arrange meetings with those who express opposing views.

Da Costa said on Twitter:

I speak because I can and because of the bravery and example set by others. It shouldn’t take bravery, wrestling with fear, conversations with family about personal safety and career prospects, to be able to give voice to the concerns of women and girls.

Tim Stanley wrote in the Telegraph that organisations like Stonewall are changing British culture through our institutions. “The Stonewall scandal,” he says, “shows us who really runs this country: human resources”.

Many institutions, including the Department of Health and the BBC, have now walked away from Stonewall’s diversity scheme, but the vibe around the PM is reportedly rather different. No 10 is sticking with a partnership with Stonewall to run a conference, and critics allege that advisors are presenting Boris with ‘skewed’ advice on trans rights which might persuade him that the argument has been won in Stonewall’s favour. Democracy itself is being bypassed by the staff.

Joanna Williams wrote in Spiked that “No 10 is trying to have it both ways when it comes to trans activist charity Stonewall”.

Public institutions, from the BBC to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, may be finally recognising that Stonewall’s charters and programmes are highly contested, if not downright pernicious. But within No 10, Stonewall remains as influential as ever.

As shown in the Free Speech Union report “Stonewall’s Censorship Champions”, the widespread influence of the LGBT campaigning organisation poses a serious threat to freedom of speech.

During a Zoom meeting with the BBC Pride Network, News Chief Fran Unsworth reportedly told LGBT employees at the channel they “have to get used to” hearing views “they do not personally like”. Due to leave the organisation in January, she told staff “these are the stories we tell. We can’t walk away from the conversation.” This follows the BBC’s decision to leave the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme.

An open letter from over 100 lawyers and students called for the Middle Temple LGBTQ+ forum to be postponed on Monday over the invitation of a gender-critical barrister, Naomi Cunningham, due to speak alongside Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall, Kieran Aldred, Stonewall’s head of policy, and Robin Allen QC, who worked on the proposal to ban conversion therapy.

The letter states that they believe the decision to invite Cunningham “turned an event that was meant to be a celebration of inclusion into a debate between those who support and oppose trans rights”, and that this “sends a damaging message to trans members and prospective members of the Inn that their inclusion is not something that can be taken for granted but is up for debate”. They wrote of their concern that her inclusion in the event was the result of “pressure to include someone with a ‘critical’ perspective on trans inclusion”. Needless to say, this is a deliberate distortion of what the debate is about – opposing some Stonewall’s position on trans rights does not mean you oppose trans rights. For more, check out Sarah Phillimore’s account in the Critic.

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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 per year, and select “Academic” in the dropdown menu asking what profession you’re in. The offer ends on 20th December.

Best wishes,

Emma Webb

Deputy Research Director