Welcome to the Free Speech Union’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 us turn the tide against cancel culture.
Government chucks fuel on the cancel culture fire with Online Safety Bill
The Government has unveiled the latest draft of the Online Safety Bill, a piece of legislation that Ministers say will make the UK the “safest place to go online” – or in other words, “turn the internet into a safe space”, to quote our founder Toby Young in his Spectator column. The legislation would impose severe penalties on social media companies that fail to remove “content that is harmful to adults” from their platforms. As Toby explained:
Given that Ofcom would be empowered to levy ‘significant fines’ on errant social media companies – 10 per cent of their ‘worldwide revenue’, according to the first draft of the bill – that would create a powerful incentive for them to remove anything that some hypothetical, ultra-sensitive person might find upsetting.
Our Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs Jennifer Powers wrote for UnHerd that the legislation has improved a bit since its first draft – but that it’s still awful if you value free speech. She said:
Perfectly legitimate views about sex-based women’s rights have been widely censored on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Women are disproportionately affected by this censorship and the Bill, as drafted, will only make the situation worse.
Mark Johnson of Big Brother Watch said the legislation was rightly becoming known as the “Censor’s Charter”. Big Brother Watch recently conducted an experiment using dummy accounts to post real comments on social media platforms made by high-profile politicians. The Culture Secretary’s own comments, posted under a fake name, were removed by Facebook. She seems unaware that her legislation will “entrench these problems”, Johnson argued. But Nadine Dorries argued her bill would actually “defend freedom of expression”. She also said the Government would draw up a list of “priority” harms for social media companies to focus on removing, which the Times expects to include ‘hate speech’. Freddie Hayward, writing in the New Statesman, said the published draft would likely be revised significantly as it passed through Parliament.
If passed, the legislation will become effective by Christmas. The Daily Mail highlighted “the crushing effect on press freedom” posed by the bill: “legitimate stories about terrorism or child abuse could be blocked by default”. Social media companies would be expected to cooperate with Ofcom in its efforts to censor ‘hate speech’ and executives who refuse could face a two-year jail term for “suppressing information”, the Times reported.
Labour said the Government’s censorship hasn’t come quickly enough, and called for it to go further and include a “crackdown” on anonymous accounts. The Guardian also welcomed the legislation, which you’d think would ring alarm bells among Conservative MPs.
Nottingham gives honorary degree to Chinese ambassador but rescinds offer to “controversial” Dr Tony Sewell
Nottingham University has rescinded the offer of an honorary degree to Dr Tony Sewell following the publication of his report on racism last year, which rejected the fashionable idea that Britain is institutionally racist. The University claimed he could no longer be given the honour because he was now a “subject of political controversy”. In response, Dr Sewell said there was clearly “no free speech” allowed in UK universities, comparing the current climate to that of the Soviet Union. The Daily Mail pointed out that among Nottingham’s former recipients of honorary degrees are a former prime minister of Malaysia, who was jailed for embezzling £537 million, and a Chinese ambassador who called reports about China’s persecution of the Uyghurs “fake news”.
Professor Matthew Goodwin of our Advisory Council, who used to lecture at Nottingham, said the decision was “politically motivated”, and that it was probably made simply because administrators disagree with Dr Sewell’s report. Why are his views verboten, asked Rakib Ehsan. Dr Sewell is just the latest “good and decent” individual to be sacrificed on the woke altar, wrote Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail.
Crackdown promised on “pro-Putin” academics as Russian dissidents risk prison
Academics have been accused of helping Putin’s war effort by pushing Kremlin lines on social media, a claim they have rejected as smears. Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University has denied being a “useful idiot” for Putin. The Government has promised to “crack down hard” on pro-Putin propaganda in higher education, as has Scotland’s Higher Education Minister.
A video circulating on social media showed a woman being arrested in Russia for holding a sign which read simply “two words”. A second woman was seemingly then about to defend the arrest of the first woman – she was a Putin loyalist – and was promptly arrested as well. Our founder Toby Young tweeted that the video “perfectly illustrates why everyone should stand up for free speech, regardless of where they stand on an issue”.
Producer Marina Ovsyannikova risked a lengthy prison term after her on-air protest on Russia’s Channel One. She appeared behind a presenter with a sign saying: “No to war! Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” She has been found guilty of a lesser charge than was initially feared, that of “organising an unauthorised public event”. She has been fined 30,000 roubles (£220 at the time of writing).
Russia has opened a criminal investigation against Facebook owner Meta after the firm changed its policy to allow users to call for the death of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Russians have said farewell to Instagram following the end of the platform in the country, the Financial Times reported.
Calls continue for Russian cultural boycott
The Association of British Orchestras has rejected any “blanket boycott” of work by Russian composers, the Telegraph reported. Laura Freeman pointed out just how dangerous it is for Russian artists to speak out against Putin. Bolshoi ballerina Olga Smirnova has condemned the war and left Russia for the Netherlands. There is an ongoing debate about whether Russian scientists should be free to publish in academic journals, with some academics arguing for a boycott.
Russian language and cultural classes being hosted on Saturday mornings at a primary school in Warrington were cancelled after some residents demanded they be stopped. One said that “All Russian classes – whether dancing or other academic classes – should be cancelled and not supported.” The Council initially heeded the call to end the sessions “in respect of the current distressing situation in Ukraine”, only to then promptly reverse the decision and claim the cancellation had been because of “safety concerns” after the school received threatening letters about the classes.
Cancelled talk from Julie Bindel deemed “maximum-risk” event by York
A talk by feminist campaigner Julie Bindel at York has been cancelled by activists, the Student Union and the University, according to organiser Euan Clayton, President of the University of York Free Speech Society. Writing for Free Speech Champions, he said he’d been told by the university’s authorities that the talk had been delisted from the events website so a “thorough risk assessment” could take place. The ‘risk assessment’ found the possibility of a protest at the event – as well as a 100% chance that Bindel would breach the University’s ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ policies. The talk was therefore labelled “high-risk” and permanently banned from appearing on the official website. Organisers were notified of its cancellation just two days before it was due to take place. Activists campaigning against the talk claimed Bindel has supported “the mass homicide of sex workers”. Balls, obviously.
Tricia Marwick, a former SNP MSP, has accused St Andrews of being “anti-Scottish” after a student published a satirical article about Nicola Sturgeon in a campus newspaper, The Saint. The paper had initially said it regretted publishing the piece, but that apology was retracted. The editors issued a second statement saying they recognised the article had caused “offence”. The article can (at the time of writing) still be read here.
Durham University is reviewing its speaker policies in the aftermath of the attempt by students to get South College head Professor Tim Luckhurst fired after he invited Rod Liddle to speak last year. Students are now claiming there has been a “cover-up” after administrators announced they wouldn’t publish their investigation into the episode. The University has vowed it will not “exclude any speakers from our campus” as a result of the review.
Meanwhile, two thirds of Yale students signed a letter in support of demonstrators who shut down a free speech discussion between a secular humanist speaker and a Christian representative of the Alliance Defending Freedom. One protester said she would “literally fight you, bitch”. Police had to escort both speakers from the building.
Censured Police Commissioner hits back after Conservative MP tries to silence her
Lisa Townsend, the Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner reprimanded for having dared express her view about women’s safety in the trans debate, spoke to the Daily Mail about her ordeal. One complainant opposing Townsend was a fellow conservative, Crispin Blunt MP. Townsend told the paper:
What I get in my inbox constantly is women saying: “I can’t speak up because if I say anything I will be ostracised or I won’t get a promotion and might even get a dismissal, so thank you for doing so.”
She was also interviewed on GB News by Andrew Doyle, the comedian, writer and presenter who sits on our Advisory Council.
Our director Douglas Murray wrote about the police’s obsession with transphobic hate crime and even thought policing, such as in the case of Harry Miller.
Trans ideology enforced in UK schools
“Children in schools across Scotland are now being taught that whatever their parents may tell them, boys can be girls and girls can be boys, and that only children can ‘know’ whether they are a boy or a girl,” wrote Maggie Mellon in the Sunday Times. Debbie Hayton described the garbled language of trans ideology for the Spectator.
Trans ideology and its outdated stereotypes have no place in the classroom, said Conservative MP Miriam Cates, a former biology teacher. The Schools Minister said ‘LGBT’ content should be taught in schools. Meanwhile, Wilfred Reilly wrote about the misreporting of Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which he described as a tightly drawn piece of legislation which will ensure age-appropriate sex education.
The case of Maya Forstater is being heard this week in the Employment Tribunal, and should attract support from all quarters, wrote Lois McLatchie of ADF UK.
Gender war lightning rod J.K. Rowling is in the news again. Jordan Tyldesley wrote for the Independent that the author “gives hope to the many women and LGBTQ people who now feel too nervous to state their views but are no longer willing to adhere to a combative form of trans activism”.
A protest in Manchester about violence inflicted on women and girls was attacked and heckled by trans activists last weekend. Brendan O’Neill wrote that the media continue to report horrific crimes committed by men who describe themselves as ‘transgender’ as though they were committed by women, and that they should stop misleading readers.
Hate crime in Scotland
Former Justice Secretary Hamza Yousaf, who presided over the Hate Crime Act (which is still to come into force despite having been passed into law), was criticised after explanatory notes designed to set out “what people can and cannot say” failed to provide any examples of ‘hate speech’ that might actually be prohibited under the law. Stuart Waiton urged the Scottish Government not to make misogyny a hate crime.
Moray Council is considering action on “anti-English racism” after having accepted new definitions of Islamophobia and antisemitism.
The new religion in British public schools
The religion of woke now pervades top public schools, wrote Julian Mann for the Conservative Woman. Westminster School, which charges £43,000 a year, has promised regular assemblies on “sexism, equality and racism”. Mann said the “tepid” Christianity he remembers from his own schooling has been replaced by wokery.
Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote about the chilling effect on free speech from a misguided emphasis on the right to privacy.
Secular writer Raif Badawi has been released from prison in Saudi Arabia after a 10-year jail sentence for “insulting Islam”. He was publicly flogged for his “crime”.
Ruth Smeeth, head of Index on Censorship and a former Labour MP, said the Right has “tried to hijack” free speech, which the Left has traditionally defended.
Yu Ting reported on the final decline of Hong Kong’s independent press, describing how young journalists are turning to other work as newspapers are shuttered. Publishers are redacting references to Taiwan and Hong Kong to appease Chinese censors.
Last chance to book! Andrew Doyle in conversation with Toby Young
Join us this coming Tuesday (March 22) for our next Online Speakeasy: Why Free Speech Matters. Toby will be joined by comedian, author and GB News presenter Andrew Doyle. The event is exclusive to FSU members and free to attend. Register here.
Comedy night: Liberty After Lockdown
Members may be interested in a free speech comedy night hosted by Big Brother Watch. The fundraiser for BBW will feature Geoff Norcott (Live at the Apollo, The Mash Report, Mock the Week, Question Time), the fabulous Mary Bourke, Prince Abdi, Nick Dixon, Tania Edwards and MC Darius Davies. Get your ticket here.
Reminder: Battle of Ideas
FSU members in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland may wish to attend a Battle of Ideas event in Belfast on Saturday, March 26 as part of the Imagine Belfast Festival. The day will include three panel discussions: “The Dangers of Online Safety”, “Can Culture Survive the Culture Wars?” and “Snowflakes or Revolutionaries? Free Speech on Campus”.
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