Weekly News Round-Up

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.

Rustat remains, Nottingham under scrutiny, and other education news

FSU Chairman Nigel Biggar has successfully campaigned along with others to retain a seventeenth-century memorial in Jesus College, Cambridge of its benefactor Tobias Rustat, who had some financial involvement in the transatlantic slave trade after donating to the college. Historian Dominic Sandbrook excoriated his former college, describing the controversy as “an extraordinary story, capturing so many aspects of the ‘woke revolution’ – its profligacy, its hypocrisy, its indifference to nuance and its contempt for truth”. The Diocese of Ely ruled that the memorial should remain at the college, suggesting that the college could provide contextual information about it, and said that activists seeking the memorial’s removal had created a “false narrative” about the extent of Rustat’s involvement in slavery.

We have lodged a complaint with the Equality and Human Rights Commission and written to Nottingham University after it withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Dr Tony Sewell on the basis that Sewell is the subject of “political controversy”. Sewell, who chaired the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, had received widespread criticism and abuse when the Commission published its report last year concluding that Britain, while far from perfect, is not “institutionally racist”. In its correspondence, the FSU identified a number of characters whom Nottingham has awarded honorary doctorates to in spite of being embroiled in “political controversy”, such as Uighur concentration camp denier and former Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, and asked whether the University discriminated against Sewell for voicing “views which, in the minds of some, black people ought not to hold”.

William Deresiewicz wrote an insightful piece for UnHerd on the new dark age in American higher education – much of which translates to the UK – on how an oppressively box-ticking academic culture has eroded intellectual curiosity for a generation of students who seek meaning in woke social justice campaigns instead. Thomas Prosser argued that debate is important in university environments not for the ostentatious swagger but for its challenge to prevailing orthodoxies at a time when university environments are more monoculturally liberal than ever.

Nadhim Zahawi has urged headteachers to take political impartiality in schools seriously, telling the Conservative Party spring conference that children weren’t “snowflakes” and it was important to cover controversial political issues but that there were situations where teachers were “keen to either shut down free speech, or to only present one side of an opinion”.

Unintended harms in the Online Safety Bill

Our Chief Legal Counsel, Bryn Harris, set out the risks to free speech posed by the Online Safety Bill, arguing that the Government cannot protect freedom of expression while simultaneously protecting adults from ‘legal but harmful’ content online. Fraser Myers added that financial penalties will incentivise Big Tech platforms to “censor it first, and ask questions later” and anticipates a proliferation of new harms that the public will inevitably need protecting from. In the Conversation, Laura Higson-Bliss queried the definition of ‘harm’ in the Bill and quoted the Samaritans’ concerns. Sam Dimitriu, writing in CapX, was unimpressed with Nadine Dorries and described the Bill as “a disaster”, and said: “If the Government wants Britain to be a place to build a new tech business, then they need to kill this Bill.”

The End of History author Francis Fukuyama described the problems of allowing a handful of private companies to regulate online speech, arguing that “a big concentration of private power has contributed to the toxicity of a lot of the discourse in modern democracies,” and adding “it’s not clear that the government is the right regulator of that kind of activity”. And the Spectator looked at Big Tech’s appalling track record when it comes to choosing which disinformation to prioritise.

NYT cancels cancel culture, and other arts and culture news

The New York Times took an editorial stand against cancel culture, writing: “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” A poll commissioned by the NYT revealed that 84% of Americans believed that fear of cancellation was a “serious” or “very serious” problem for everyday free speech.

In UnHerd, Park Macdougald suggested that the NYT’s tack to the centre might be a response to Americans’ impatience with the excesses of the progressive left, while Hadley Freeman noted that women polled by the NYT were more concerned about cancel culture than men, and that women were more prone to smears and cancellation campaigns over gender-critical beliefs or for perceived racial infractions. Freddie deBoer wrote about the New York media classes’ frenzied online response to the NYT’s editorial: “You have to understand this to understand our media class: the number one priority in their entire lives, above and beyond literally any other, is to earn insider status with other people in media.” And New York magazine reports on novel developments in HR consultancy with a story on the work of Lacey Leone McLaughlin, the “rage coach” who assists stressed-out senior Hollywood producers in managing the demands and whims of Gen Z teams with access to anonymous social media whisper accounts to denounce their bosses.

Even the Guardian acknowledged that the left is sometimes involved in US book-banning, with attempts by both progressives and conservatives to remove books from school libraries. The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood described the US right as “playing woke snowflakery back: ‘This might upset people’.”

In an interview with the Telegraph, Jacqueline Wilson said that cancel culture was like “walking a tightrope” and defended her rewrite of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, which the FSU criticised earlier in the year, insisting that it was not motivated by political correctness but was “simply that the children in my book are modern”.

Russia and authoritarian rule

Fraser Nelson wrote that Ofcom was wrong to take RT off the air because “the fight is not just between Russia and Ukraine, but the democratic way of life and authoritarian rule” – and argued that allowing authoritarian propaganda channels to continue broadcasting, even when they’re owned by our enemies, was the sign of a society confident in its own democratic values.

Meanwhile, Russian Media Group announced that it was taking a number of high-profile Russian and Ukrainian musicians off air due to the “arrogant and contemptuous attitude of the musicians towards Russian listeners” in opposing the war in Ukraine. And in a depressing example of what happens when a state has the power to censor social media posts it doesn’t like, the BBC reported the story of a popular Russian geography teacher who was fired for “immoral behaviour” after posting criticism of the war on Instagram. The Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny reacted with a defiant grin after being sentenced to nine years in a penal colony and the Times described his courage against state persecution as “heroic”.

Lawfare and journalistic freedom

HarperCollins publisher Arabella Pike wrote in the Times about the relentless legal campaigns – and sinister extra-legal harassment – levelled at her authors Catherine Belton and Tom Burgis after their books Putin’s People and Kleptopia riled oligarchs and corporations. Pike argued that lawfare – the practice of using expensive, stressful legal attacks in a war of attrition aimed at wearing down the finances and resolve of critics – is having a “chilling” effect on journalistic coverage of the rich and crooked and welcomed the Government’s consultation on legislation designed to prevent it. In the Law Gazette, Jonathan Goldsmith acknowledged this abuse of our legal system and asked for greater legal clarity on balancing privacy and reputation against freedom of expression. A Times leader argued in favour of safeguards for journalistic freedom of expression, stating that “rights to privacy have progressively encroached upon the public’s right to know”. This is a point we made in our response to the Government’s consultation on reforming the Human Rights Act.

It’s not just Russian oligarchs – Prince Harry is suing the Mail on Sunday again, this time citing “serious damage to his reputation and substantial hurt, embarrassment and distress which is continuing” after anarticle inspired “a feeding frenzy of hostile comments” online. And journalist Chris Mullin was successful in challenging West Midlands Police’s demand that he reveal his sources relating to the Birmingham Six, after he discovered that they had framed six innocent men for the 1974 bombings and helped to wage a campaign that led to their release.

Ideology has no place in medicine, and other Peak Trans stories

Great Ormond Street Hospital cancelled an NHS conference for trainee psychiatrists after Mermaids and other trans activists, including a conference participant, protested that including gender-critical voices would make trans attendees feel “unsafe”. The Economist’s Helen Joyce, who was due to take part alongside some of the UK’s most senior gender identity experts, said that the no-platforming campaign was “outrageous”.

The Observer came out against the polarising of debate around gender identity, saying that “ideology has no place in medicine” and there was “a deplorable tendency by some to mislabel clinical concern about the affirmative model as transphobia”. Philosopher Kathleen Stock argued that the fiction of gender identity entailed a set of dangerous demands to ignore material reality; and FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle described the obfuscation of questions surrounding biological sex as the gaslighting of the political class, concluding that “It isn’t a ‘gotcha’ to ask a politician to define terms such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – it is a means by which we can assess the honesty of the ruling class.” (We recently hosted a Speakeasy with Andrew Doyle that you can watch on YouTube.)

Labour MP Charlotte Nichols said that critics of transgender swimmer Lia Thomas should “frankly pipe down”, which Sharron Davies described as “disappointing of an MP supposedly representing females too”. Hadley Freeman suggested that American men complaining about gender-critical views on Mumsnet could turn their attention to “the crushing of US women’s access to abortion and the lack of maternity leave in the US” instead.

In Scotland, taxpayers paid £150,000 for the SNP’s failed attempt to redefine the meaning of “women” in quotas for public sector boards.

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 tomorrow (Saturday, 26 March) 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”. (Click here to listen to a podcast of the event we co-hosted with the Academy of Ideas last week to launch Jacob Mchangama’s book Free Speech: A Global History From Socrates to Social Media. And Matt Ridley’s Online Drop-In with the Free Speech Champions on the origins of Covid, science and scepticism is available to view here.)

Dominic Frisby at Comedy Unleashed

Comedian Dominic Frisby is doing a full length show at Comedy Unleashed next week with his band the Gilets Jaunes. The Times says Dominic is “outstanding”; the Telegraph says he’s “excellent”; the Spectator says he’s “mercurially witty”; even the Guardian admits he “can be entertaining”. You can get tickets here

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