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.
British Bill of Rights
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab announced plans to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights in an interview with the Mail, saying: “Effectively, free speech will be given what will amount to ‘trump card’ status in a whole range of areas.” What this might look like in detail remains to be seen; the Mail pointed out that the Government’s disregard for free speech in the Online Safety Bill needed revisiting, but concluded that “this blueprint for Britain is a fine start”, urging Boris Johnson to “use it as a launchpad to prosecute a ferocious ‘war on woke’.”
In the Press Gazette, the Society of Editors said that the balance between freedom of expression and privacy needed a “reset” and made a number of requests, including adding a need for privacy claimants to prove “serious harm”, as is the case in defamation cases, and the protection of individual journalists from SLAPP libel actions. You can see our response to the government’s consultation about reforming the Human Rights Act here.
Heneghan ban underlines risks of Online Safety Bill
Carl Heneghan, the Oxford Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, was temporarily banned from Twitter after sharing an article about a study he was involved in that concluded Covid deaths may have been overestimated. Twitter, apparently of the opinion that a professor of evidence-based medicine did not qualify as “authoritative”, suspended Professor Heneghan from the platform, telling him: “We require the removal of content that may pose a risk to people’s health, including content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information.” Heneghan was reinstated after a public backlash. The FSU’s Toby Young said: “The suppression of dissenting voices will only get worse once the Online Safety Bill becomes law. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube will treat it as a green light to increase their censorship of anyone who doesn’t fall in with the woke agenda.” Big Brother Watch’s Silkie Carlo tweeted that “Nadine Dorries’ Online Safety Bill is going to put online censorship like this on steroids”.
Law: Holbrook wins appeal and Lords consider anti-SLAPP laws
Barrister Jon Holbrook has won his appeal against the £500 fine he received for tweeting that “free speech is dying and Islamists and other Muslims are playing a central role” in response a Muslim journalist’s demand that Charlie Hebdo be closed in the wake of Samuel Paty’s beheading by an Islamist. The Bar Standards Board had found that the tweet “would not only cause offence but could promote hostility towards Muslims as a group”. However, on appeal, the Bar Tribunal and Adjudication Service ruled: “For the expression of a political belief to be such that it diminishes the trust of the public in the particular barrister or in the profession as a whole will require something more than the mere causing of offence.” Holbrook, who had been voted out of Cornerstone Barristers after tweeting that the Equality Act “undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”, said that he had been sanctioned for “crimes against woke ideology” and that the sanction process “erodes democracy”.
As the Lords communications and digital committee met to examine the impact of SLAPPs on investigative journalism, media law expert Amber Melville-Brown asked whether the UK would benefit from introducing US-style anti-SLAPP legislation, and concluded: “They might prove a welcome free speech protection for responsible publishers, but present a slippery slope to irresponsible reporting by the reckless; sham claims might be thrown out, but genuine actions might also be deterred. It’s all in the balance.”
Education: institutional thought-policing and problematic mugs
The Yorkshire Examiner revealed that the Batley Grammar School teacher, who received death threats after showing pupils an image of Muhammad in an RE lesson, is still in hiding. MP Kim Leadbetter said it was “completely unacceptable for the teacher to have been forced into hiding and his family put at risk”. Last year, the FSU reported the charity that doxxed him, Purpose of Life, to the Charity Commission, which issued a formal warning. At Colchester Royal Grammar School, a teacher was suspended this week for carrying a mug with images of Jesus and Muhammad from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series and is currently under investigation by the school.
The Economist reported on activist charity benchmarking schemes in British universities, of which Stonewall is the best-known, and the ideological demands they make of students and staff. Sixty per cent of UK universities now have anonymous reporting schemes, so-called “snitch portals”, with a similar proportion signed up to external equality, diversity and inclusivity schemes. FSU Advisory Council member and Cambridge philosopher Dr Arif Ahmed described one requirement – that universities collectively foster gender ideology – as opening the door to “institutional thought-policing”. The Economist said that, while the “planned Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill is supposed to help”, the dominance of benchmarking schemes meant that “such policies will not do much to change campus culture”.
David Miller, the Bristol University professor who was fired for making statements about Jewish students and the University’s Jewish Society, has lost his appeal. In terminating Miller’s employment, the University said that, despite a QC finding that his statements did not constitute unlawful speech, he “did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff”. Miller now plans to take his case to the Employment Tribunal.
At Glasgow University, academic Joanna Stosztek called for a colleague, who described the war in Ukraine as “a panto”, to be fired. Alan McManus is currently under investigation by the University.
Putin plays the culture wars
Putin weaponised the culture wars, comparing Russia to JK Rowling as a victim of “progressive discrimination”. In a televised address, Putin said that the West was “trying to cancel our country” and said that institutions which had removed Russian ballets, music and arts from their programmes were “trying to cancel a whole thousand-year culture, our people”. Rowling didn’t disappoint in her response, tweeting that: “Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics. #IStandWithUkraine.” She linked to a BBC article on jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Nonetheless, Putin succeeded in setting a hare running, harnessing the worst people on Twitter to gloat at the official Putin-adjacent status of Rowling and the right-wing press. In Spiked, Tom Slater said that “it is hard to think of a phrase more fitting than ‘useful idiots’ to describe the blue-tick wonders who wet themselves with excitement this weekend in response to Putin’s comments about JK Rowling and cancel culture”. In CapX, Helen Dale looked at how the media’s handling of Covid led to a collapse in trust, where it “showed itself to be at least inaccurate and sometimes untrustworthy”, and argued that there was “an information crisis backing onto a military crisis” ready for Putin to divide and conquer.
Big Tech’s social credit cartel
Influential Big Tech investor David Sacks told Bari Weiss’s Honestly podcast that he believed America was sleepwalking into a social credit system, saying that it “conditions the benefits of society – economic benefits, the ability to spend your money – on having the correct opinions. If you don’t, then your ability to participate in online platforms is diminished or curtailed entirely.” Sacks observed that the original ‘anything goes’ openness of the Internet had been turned on its head and the big platforms now operate as a censorship cartel: “They all implement the same policy with regard to censoring speech. They all kick the same people off their platform.”
Elon Musk polled two million followers on Twitter, saying: “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” Seventy per cent said no, leading Musk to ask if a new platform was needed.
Democracy vs nonsense
Tom Stoppard asked how expressing your faith in Enlightenment values had become a kind of heresy in the Sunday Times, concluding that identity politics threatened his long-held assumption that reality was the ultimate check against untruthful and nonsensical speech: “But no one, not even Lewis Carroll, saw identity politics coming. Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty has maybe had the last word. ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,’ he tells Alice. And that includes pronouns.”
In the Times, Matthew Syed took a more upbeat line on the noise and discord of the Western political sphere, writing that, despite the “hostility and rancour”, he found himself “marvelling at the system we call democracy”: “All that anger, all that freedom to express it, all that potential to spill over into violence, and yet democracies continue to bumble along.”
Pullman resigns from the Society of Authors
Philip Pullman resigned from his post as president of the Society of Authors after standing up for fellow author Kate Clanchy, who was cancelled by Picador after she had been wrongly accused of racism. Pullman said, in a written statement to the SoA: “I realised that I would not be free to express my personal opinions as long as I remained President.” The SoA’s committee had obliquely attacked Pullman in a statement about its commitment to social justice; Dames Marina Warner and Carmen Callil quit in protest at Pullman’s treatment.
Author and lawyer Helen Dale tweeted that the SoA had been “hollowed out” by ideologues and that she had left because it was “useless” and “a shell of its former self”, adding a shout-out for the FSU: “If you’re a writer and you want an outfit that’ll actually have your back, there’s always @SpeechUnion.”
Author Kat Rosenfield, writing in Persuasion, described the shift in American literary censorship from the formerly dominant conservative right to the left. Rosenfield concluded that, despite the bleak state of affairs in the ultra-woke literary community, “there’s also reason to be optimistic: the fiercer the pressure to conform, the more powerful the creative eruption when artists finally decide to break free”. And Swift Press, the independent publisher that acquired Clanchy’s work after her cancellation, announced that it was launching a new imprint, Forum, aimed at “challenging groupthink”.
Don’t Say Penis, and other gender news
Keir Starmer, asked whether a woman could have a penis in an LBC discussion of swimmer Lia Thomas, floundered, saying, “I don’t think we can conduct this debate.” Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner also fudged the question on Sky, saying: “When we debase it to whether or not… what genitalia you’ve got, I think all that does is damage people and it doesn’t help us go forward on some of the real issues that people are facing.” MP Wes Streeting finally came to Labour’s rescue, telling FSU Advisory Council member Julia Hartley-Brewer that “men have penises, women have vaginas”, for which he received applause.
In the Spectator, James Kirkup spelled out why that Starmer’s squeamishness around biological sex is a problem for Labour, arguing that the key conflict of interests in the trans debate centred on the historical existence of spaces where women could feel secure from the threat of rape. Isabel Hardman said that, while the trans debate was toxic, it could only be resolved by politicians being upfront about their own position and the trade-offs at stake. In the Telegraph, Suzanne Moore said that in conflict zones, where rape is used as a weapon of war by invading armies, “everyone knows what a woman is and if you don’t see the price women pay for that, then you are truly blind”. In the Mail, Sarah Vine made a similar argument; in Spiked, Brendan O’Neill said “from now on let’s just state it clearly: ‘People with penises are men. All of them. The End.’”
Consequence culture at the Oscars
Presenter Chris Rock livened up the Oscars, previously described by Toby Young as a “snorefest of non-stop virtue signalling”, by making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s bald hairdo, prompting Will Smith to slap him. Amid the maelstrom of pearl-clutching and bad takes that ensued, Eric Boehm said in Reason that “Chris Rock won the Oscars slap fight”, admiring Rock’s professionalism in getting on with his job as host without calling for security or punishment: “The restraint and good humour demonstrated by Rock should be a role model for those who want to defend free expression from bullies on the right and the left – and from whichever side of the culture war ends up claiming Smith.”
In the meantime, the Academy is set to disqualify any films that don’t adhere to their labyrinthine diversity quotas from the Oscars from 2024.
Event: Why Free Speech Matters
Please join us in for a members’ event on 21 April 21 in Edinburgh where internationally renowned free speech advocate and author Jacob Mchangama will be introducing his highly acclaimed new book, Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. The evening will be hosted by Toby Young, General Secretary of the Free Speech Union; Toby’s Spectator review of Jacob’s book can be found here. Toby and Jacob will be joined by a distinguished panel to discuss the importance of free speech and how it can be defended today. Tickets can be booked here.
Free Speech Nation with Andrew Doyle: audience invitation
FSU members and subscribers are invited by comedian and FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle to join the live audience of his television show, Free Speech Nation, broadcast on GB News on Sunday evenings. Sign up for free tickets here – go to ‘Current Shows’ and scroll down for Free Speech Nation.
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