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.

Online Safety Bill

As Lord Grade was confirmed as chair of Ofcom, the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said “he appears to understand the importance of Ofcom’s new role in regulating the online space” but “his clear lack of depth when talking about social media and online safety gives us concerns”. In the Times, Benedict Evans explored the trade-offs in seeking online safety while trying to retain freedom of expression, with no clear rule underpinning the speech codes of different social media platforms, and that policing claims of “legal but harmful” speech might now fall to Ofcom, and hence the social media refusenik Michael Grade. In a New Statesman debate on the Online Safety Bill, Index on Censorship’s Ruth Smeeth said that the new “legal but harmful” speech codes could mean that things “we could discuss in the pub… would not be allowed to be on my Facebook page”. The Institute of Economic Affairs’s Victoria Hewson said: “The Online Safety Bill… is stretching the concept of safety beyond all recognition, to justify a massive extension in the powers of the state. I’m not sure that any of this is going to make us any safer.”

Meanwhile, irony died as Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, called for zero tolerance for online abuse of politicians.

Edinburgh Event: Why Free Speech Matters

Please join us in for a members’ event on 21 April 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, including the SNP MP Joanna Cherry, to discuss the importance of free speech and how it can be defended today. Tickets can be booked here.

Universities: FSU calls for a Cardiff inquiry, NDAs at Oxford

The FSU has been signal-boosting a petition to the Welsh Senedd, asking for an inquiry into Cardiff University’s failure to protect members of its academic staff who received death threats after they publicly queried the University’s membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme. We have written again to the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff about this, querying why the University is refusing to properly investigate the bullying and harassment of these academics. We also wrote to Welsh Minister of Education Jeremy Miles MS. Please sign the petition. If it gets 10,000 signatures, it will be considered for a debate in the Senedd.

At Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford a student who claimed to have been raped was issued with a gagging order by the college. The student said that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, then Master of the college, had tried “desperately to convince her not to complain”. In a leader, the Times said: “[T]hus far, no Oxford college has signed a pledge, launched by the Government in January, not to use non-disclosure agreements in misconduct cases. The university denies the use of NDAs; events at LMH suggest otherwise.” LMH subsequently said that it would sign a pledge to stop imposing gagging orders on students.

Tide turning for free speech in law after Holbrook victory

In Spiked, FSU Advisory Council member Emma Webb said that barrister Jon Holbrook’s win against the Bar Standards Board was “very good news”, but listed a number of other cases in which barristers “have fallen foul of the Bar Standards Board for expressing opinions it deems unacceptable” – such as the case of Allison Bailey, who was investigated by her chambers, Garden Court, for saying that “gender extremism is about to meet its match” when the LGB Alliance was launched. Webb said that “perhaps the tide is turning” and the Holbrook ruling “marks an important victory in the battle for free speech. But the war is far from over.”

U-Turn on U-Turn on “conversion therapy”

In a double U-turn – a 360° U-turn? – the Government said it planned to drop its pledge to ban conversion therapy, and then announced hours later that the ban would in fact proceed but with a carve-out for gender dysphoria. We welcomed the initial announcement, and were relieved when the Government made it clear that the ban wouldn’t extend to referring adolescents with gender dysphoria to therapists. You can read our response to the Government’s consultation about banning conversation therapy here. In our previous submission to the Government, we said: “Our concern is that ‘conversion therapy’, as currently under discussion, is too vaguely defined to form the basis of a new law and such a law would inevitably have a chilling effect on free speech.”

In the Telegraph, former No 10 Director of Legislative Affairs Nikki Da Costa, who shares many of our concerns about the vagueness of the proposals and their impact on free speech and who had set out how existing legislation already bans conversion therapy in a viral Twitter thread, said that the Government should now take its time to draft any legislation carefully. Da Costa warned: “Lobby groups will whip up a social media storm, portraying anyone that votes against the amendment as transphobic and MPs will have to decide whether they have the courage to intervene or whether to hope that it will all be okay.”

Respect My Sex if You Want My X

In the Times, Lucy Bannerman looked at the history of transsexuality, such as the transition of the iconic journalist and historian Jan Morris, and asked how the debate around trans rights had reached its current toxicity, concluding that the aggressive #nodebate tactics of campaigning organisations and performative allies had fed a culture of secrecy and suppression of dissent in organisations such as the Tavistock. Bannerman said: “The trouble is that transgender identity is not like the struggle for racial or sexual equality. The civil rights movement did not seek to reclassify who is black and who is white. The gay rights movement did not seek to reclassify who is gay and who is straight.”

In the Sunday Times, Robert Colvile was more upbeat, pointing out that beyond the online noise of the trans debate both Tory MPs and the British public were overwhelmingly supportive of trans people. The New Statesman ran an article quoting anonymous Labour insiders bemoaning the “clusterfuck” of the party’s handling of the sex and gender issue. In the Mail on Sunday, Dan Hodges wrote that Keir Starmer needed to “level with people, not least people in the trans community” and that he “needs to be clear that the only moral – and politically sustainable – position is one in which the rights of those who wish to self-identify are protected and guaranteed, so long as they don’t undermine the rights of others”. Otherwise, Hodges warned, the Tories would exploit Labour’s obfuscation – and they’d be “on the right side of the argument”.  

Ahead of the May local elections, Maya Forstater, along with Women Uniting’s Caroline ffiske and Women’s Rights Network’s Heather Binning, launched the ‘Respect My Sex if You Want My X’ campaign in the Mail in which they urged voters to question candidates in the upcoming elections about their positions on women’s rights and trans rights – and not to vote for them if they don’t endorse sex-based women’s rights. Labour’s Rosie Duffield publically signed up, prompting the question of whether this might bring her into further conflict with her party; Kathleen Stock backed the campaign, saying: “You can’t change material reality by unilaterally changing words. Instead, you merely create misunderstanding and set groups of people against each other. What we need is a free, open and honest debate that acknowledges the biological facts, one that elected politicians cannot shirk.” For Women Scotland adopted ‘Respect My Sex’ too, saying that anyone who did not answer “adult human female” when asked what a woman was could not be trusted on other matters.

The Times reported that female cyclists are afraid to speak up about the proposed inclusion of trans cyclist Emily Bridges at the National Omnium Championships for fear of being accused of transphobia. While cycling governing body UCI eventually banned Bridges from that event, the prospect of a challenge under the Equality Act remains possible; the Chair of British Cycling described the issue of transwomen athletes as the biggest issue in women’s sports. Women members of British Cycling wrote to UCI asking it to rescind the rule allowing transwomen to compete in women’s cycling events, and Boris Johnson said: “I don’t think that biological men should be competing in female sporting events.”

Johnson also said that he did not consider children to be Gillick-competent, and thus able to give informed consent for gender dysphoria treatment, and that some spaces should be exclusively reserved for biological females. Johnson added that he was “immensely sympathetic to people who wanted to change gender” and said: “That’s as far as my thinking has developed on this issue. If that puts me in conflict with some others, then we have got to work it all out.”

In UnHerd, Hadley Freeman observed, of the difference between Labour’s “flailing” and Johnson’s straight talk, that the “Left have handed the Right this victory on a gold platter”. Freeman continued: “This was the week when the wheels started to come off the ideological bandwagon, when Stonewall’s grip on British politicians began to loosen.”

Stonewall failed this week in its attempt to pressurise the UN to downgrade the Equality and Human Rights Commission; it and other LGBT organisations also boycotted the planned Safe To Be Me conference on global LGBT rights over the trans exemption in the Government’s conversion therapy ban, leading to the cancellation of the conference.

A Times leader said it was time to go “back to basics” and ditch the victimhood culture on both the trans and gender critical sides of the trans debate, observing, of the question of whether women have penises: “It is lucky there isn’t an energy crisis or war to distract attention from this existential issue.”

“Legal but harmful” Christian beliefs

The FSU’s Toby Young discussed the risks of the Online Safety Bill for Christians in an interview with Christian Today, saying that the Online Safety Bill’s requirement that Big Tech remove “legal but harmful” speech would “almost certainly include some posts expressing orthodox Christian beliefs, although the big social media companies need no encouragement when it comes to removing them”. Toby added: “My advice to any orthodox Christian worried about their right to freedom of expression being eroded is to join the Free Speech Union.” In UnHerd, Lois McLatchie described a series of incidents across Europe in which Christians faced prosecution, arrest and slander, including two people in Finland charged with “ethnic agitation” and UK street preacher John Sherwood, who was removed from his soapbox by police for saying that God created Adam and Eve. McLatchie said: “Not everybody likes the Bible. But freedom to speak openly means that we will sometimes hear what we disagree with.”

Musk disrupts Twitter

Elon Musk bought a $3 billion stake in Twitter and joined the Board of Directors. Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist”, had previously been critical of Twitter and asked his followers on the platform how it could better protect free speech. The Telegraph reported that Musk subscribed to the view that Twitter should be “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and that, while he had been close to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, his relations with current CEO Parag Agrawal were less cordial: “Musk also posted an image to Twitter in December 2021 showing Agrawal as Joseph Stalin, airbrushing Mr Dorsey out of history.” As commentators speculated over whether Musk would push for further control, Matthew Lynn suggested in the Spectator that “if he takes control, Twitter may start to give libertarian, right of centre views as much space as it does the woke activists that all too often dominate it right now. That would be a very important shift.”

Tip of the SLAPP iceberg

Baroness Tina Stowell, chair of House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, said that the committee had “heard concerning evidence that free speech is being chilled by the use of SLAPPs. We heard that the SLAPP cases we do know about represent just the tip of the iceberg because the claimants are successful in stifling investigative journalism and publishing.” Stowell described both costs and case numbers as “out of control” and said that the committee would be “writing to the Government to encourage urgent action on this issue”. The FSU is responding to the Government’s consultation on SLAPPs, which you can find here

Diversity of belief and democracy

In the City Journal, Noel Yaxley described Britain as having “some of the most authoritarian restrictions on free speech in Europe” and described the Equality Act’s protected characteristics as the “basis for much of Britain’s censorious legislation”. In the Spectator, Niall Gooch asked where all the genuinely conservative reforms afforded by Johnson’s 80-seat majority have gone, saying: “Take the Malicious Communications Act 2003, frequently used by the police and the CPS to harass or prosecute people who send ‘offensive’ tweets. It would not be difficult to amend or repeal this part of the law. Or consider the Equality Act 2010, which embeds in policy-making and institutional action the following assumption: disparity in outcomes among different groups is ipso facto evidence of racism.”

Matthew Syed interviewed GCHQ head Jeremy Fleming, who said: “Diversity of thought and speaking truth to power are some of our greatest strengths – not just in GCHQ but as a western coalition. It helps us to refine our decision-making, challenge our assumptions and – from an intelligence perspective – use the truth to counter disinformation.” And the Government came out for free speech for councillors, saying that British democracy was in its nature “robust and oppositional”, and that “free speech within the law can sometimes involve the expression of political views that some may find offensive”.

Cancel Caecilius, and other arts and culture news

Kathleen Stock wrote about the corrosive effect of identity politics and tone policing in academic philosophy in UnHerd, saying that she wondered if the notoriously aggressive environment of old-school, male-dominated philosophy “wasn’t the best of all possible worlds in comparison to what came next”. Stock identified the creeping Americanisation of academic life as part of the problem, and added that the new speech code of informal civility undermined the ability to pick apart a bad argument. As the demands to protect identity groups from philosophical investigation stacked up, Stock concluded that: “The traditional means of defending a position – using arguments – wasn’t fashionable in online spaces anymore. Instead, moves formerly condemned in first year logic classes were in the ascendancy: ad hominems, failures of charitable interpretation, begging the question, confusion of sufficient conditions with necessary ones, derivations of ‘is’ from ‘ought’, and all the rest.”

In the US Free Speech Union Substack, Jon Zobenica and Benjamin Schwarz told the story of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, who was fired, even after openly criticising the war in Ukraine, for not adequately denouncing Putin himself. Zobenic and Schwarz compared the current fashion for blacklisting to the commitment to Western values of free expression in the post-war era, when Ezra Pound was awarded the Bollingen Prize for poetry while awaiting trial for treason after spouting antisemitic propaganda on behalf of the Fascist regime in Italy. Zobenia and Schwarz quoted leftwing American critic Dwight Macdonald on the importance of guarding against authoritarian instincts by not confusing the value of art with the value of its maker’s politics, and concluded that Netrebko’s cancellation was “what comes – at home no less than abroad – of the totalitarian tendency that Dwight Macdonald warned us about.”

As Stirling University announced that it was replacing Jane Austen with Toni Morrison on a “Special Authors” module, Ella Whelan said that, while this was part of a pre-planned rotation and Morrison was an excellent author, the internal University memos noting that the move would be useful as part of an ongoing “decolonisation” project indicated that literary merit was not the only consideration. Inaya Folarin Iman said: “This is not decolonisation. In fact, it is yet another example of the hyper-Americanisation that has taken hold on campuses and in wider society in recent years… In Americanising under the guise of ‘decolonising’, we lose sight of Britain’s unique features – and problems. We downplay class and regional inequality in favour of an analysis of race in another country, leading ironically to a greater ignorance of the struggles against racial discrimination that took place right here at home.”

In UnHerd, novelist Philip Hensher said that authors were newly timid when writing about class, noting that “it must be affected by a general squeamishness about making personal observations of a specific sort”. In the Times, Libby Purves argued that trigger warnings were not only condescending to children and young people, but also cheapened genuine PTSD by making casual claims about “trauma”. And the Telegraph announced that Cambridge Latin Course icon and slave-objectifier Caecilius might be next in line for cancellation, quoting Latin scholar Steven Hunt, who described the Roman world as depicted in CLC as “highly problematic” and recommended that teachers liven things up by translating Disney and Taylor Swift into Latin instead.

We’re looking for people to help us set up Regional Speakeasies in Bristol

The Events team would like to hear from anyone interested in helping with Regional Speakeasies in the Bristol area. Members have already got things going in Cardiff, but our research shows that there are lots of members in the South West for whom Bristol might work as an additional regional ‘hub’. While we realise that travel across the south western counties is not easy, we would nevertheless like to see what we can do to give members the chance to get together during the year. Please email events@freespeechunion.org to get in touch with Dr Jan Macvarish and Kate Howell on our events team.

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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