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.

Free Speech Union to launch in Scotland

The forthcoming launch of the Free Speech Union in Scotland was the Times’s top Scotland story. The Times reported that SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC, education policy professor Lindsay Paterson, former Scottish Conservatives deputy leader Murdo Fraser MSP and award-winning poet Jenny Lindsay were joining the Advisory Board, along with journalist and former University of Edinburgh rector Iain Macwhirter, director of the Catholic Media Office Peter Kearney and former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars. The Times quoted Jenny Lindsay on the toxic literary cancel culture in Scotland, saying: “I dearly hope for robust discussion about re-energising Scotland’s literary landscape so that writers and thinkers feel free to explore complex contemporary issues without fears of no-platforming, ostracisation, smearing and loss of livelihood.”

There was much enthusiasm for the FSU in Scotland below the line in the Times, with posters welcoming the move in the face of increasing censoriousness in Scottish life and asking where to sign up. If you’re based in Scotland or know people who could benefit from membership, please sign up and share.

As though to illustrate the need for intervention, Edinburgh University UCU president Grant Buttars described the University’s new branch of Academics for Academic Freedom as “sickening” and “a haven for racists, transphobes and other assorted bigots”. Scottish Greens minister Lorna Slater told the Herald that the BBC needs to stop platforming gender-critical views, saying that it “only recently stopped putting on climate deniers because they required balance. We wouldn’t put balance on the question of racism or anti-Semitism, but we allow this fictional notion of balance when it comes to anti-trans [views]. The whole thing is disgusting.” Elsewhere in the interview Slater had claimed, of the SNP-Greens coalition, “We don’t do shouty negative politics – we do ‘working together’… We believe in collaboration, cooperation and consensus.” In the Spectator, Debbie Hayton said that Slater “cited climate deniers as not worthy of a platform. I’d suggest biology deniers like Slater are another.” In the Times, Alex Massie said of Slater’s ‘no debate’ tactics: “The arrogance is breathtaking, and all the more so given that it is, at least in part, in thrall to pieties that are demonstrably untrue.” 

Edinburgh Event: Why Free Speech Matters

Please join us 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 SNP MP and newly announced FSU Scotland Advisory Council member Joanna Cherry QC, to discuss the importance of free speech and how it can be defended today. Tickets can be booked here.

Nottingham holds out on Sewell degree, and Durham decolonises maths

Nottingham University is still resisting calls for it to reverse its decision to rescind the offer of an honorary degree to former Government race tsar Dr Tony Sewell, with the rationale that Sewell’s presence would “overshadow” graduation ceremonies and upset students. We wrote to the EHRC asking them to investigate whether Nottingham’s decision to single Sewell out as a subject of controversy was motivated by racial prejudice; 50 Tory MPs also wrote to the University, highlighting the “absurdity” of granting honorary degrees to disgraced former Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Uighur re-education camp denying ex-Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming while refusing to do so for Sewell, “simply because he earned the ire of a few frustrated ideologues for his widely welcomed work” on the Government’s race report. In the Spectator, Tom Slater recalled the racist abuse aimed at Sewell on the day the report was released and said: “But rather than stand by one of their own, someone on the receiving end of abuse and character assassination, Nottingham has essentially joined the pile-on. An accomplished black Brit is lambasted for having an opinion, and the high-status move is to side with his critics. This is modern racial politics summed up.” In Spiked, Rakib Ehsan said: “This speaks to a deep problem in Britain’s higher-education sector. It seems nothing offends our universities more than someone challenging their grievance-fuelled, identitarian narrative on race.”

As nearly 50 universities signed a pledge not to use confidentiality clauses to silence campus misconduct, Oxford and Cambridge continued to hold out, with no colleges having signed up despite the recent incident at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where it emerged that the College had instructed a student not to speak to public media about an alleged rape. 

Durham University’s Mathematics Department has been given a guide to decolonising its curriculum, including considering the cultural origins of mathematical concepts and asking whether mathematicians cited are “mostly white or male”. In another Spectator piece, Tom Slater said the decolonisation drive demonstrated two things: “First, that identity politics in education is no longer confined to the arts and humanities – even maths and the hard sciences aren’t safe from such relativism. Second, for all their talk of ‘decolonisation’, it is woke activists who think of ethnic minorities as lesser beings, incapable of mastering ‘western’ subjects unless those subjects are completely rewired beforehand.”

Stonewall sulks on

After the government’s ‘Safe to Be Me’ conference was cancelled due to Stonewall leading a mass boycott over the decision not to ban “conversion therapy” dealing with gender dysphoria, a Times leader said that Stonewall’s intolerance of any but the most extreme viewpoints over trans issues had “alienated” other organisations along with the general public. The Times pointed out that, at a time when homosexuality continued to be criminalised in many countries, punished by some with the death penalty, an opportunity for Britain to lead change on a “genuinely existential issue” had been squandered by Stonewall’s intransigence. 

In the Telegraph, Zoe Strimpel compared recent British controversies over trans rights to the situation in the US, saying that Boris Johnson’s “balance between zest for LGBT rights and common sense” would be “unimaginable” from any US politician, where “the debate has become almost universally nasty, polarised and extreme.” Strimpel observed that “Britain has imported many of the horrors that gave rise to the American culture war, such as the doctrine of intersectionality, which pits people of varying degrees of ‘oppression’ against each other” but concluded: “Unlike America, however, we are still a country where our leaders can speak clearly and with sensitivity on matters as vexed and uncomfortable as gender identity and its relationship to sexual anatomy. In Britain, at least, there’s still cause for hope that the current mess can be resolved decently.”

And as Left Twitter erupted into outrage and sorrow over photos of JK Rowling enjoying a drunken lunch with other ‘Respect My Sex’ activists, Kathleen Stock shared her top five tips for managing fractious transactivists in a brilliant piece of Supernanny satire, including getting them off their screens and outdoors and setting boundaries: “This appears to be a particularly hard one for transactivists to accept, tending as they do to think that all boundaries are fascist – so start small. Begin by casually saying things like ‘apples can’t be oranges’ and ‘tables can’t be chairs’. (If they get cross and start calling you the ‘fruit police’ or the ‘furniture police’, calmly ignore).”

Guilty verdict for Amess’s killer – and the serial avoidance of talking about Islamism

Sir David Amess MP’s attacker, Ali Harbi Ali, was found guilty of murder, having told the court: “I wanted to kill David and every MP who voted for bombings in Syria. I wanted to die, be shot and be a hero.” Spiked’s Tom Slater said that, in the aftermath of Amess’s death, “the political and media classes seemed desperate to present this murder as something else entirely – as an act of senseless violence whipped up by the ‘coarseness’ of political debate.” In the Critic, Stephen Daisley described politicians’ and journalists’ avoidance of Harbi’s immediately apparent Islamist motives as “cowardice”, comparing the moral panic about abusive behaviour on social media and calls for new legislation to censor it, including speeding up the Second Reading of the Online Safety Bill, to “the mosques of Southend, which released a joint statement within 24 hours denouncing ‘an indefensible atrocity’ that was ‘committed in the name of blind hatred’ and urged that ‘the perpetrator be swiftly brought to justice’.” In the Spectator, Sam Ashworth-Hayes added, sardonically: “The twisted ideology that drove Ali to kill a decent man must have been free speech on social media, the idea that ‘legal but harmful’ content has a place in democratic debate. Our MPs, in their judgement, could see nothing in his words or actions that indicated otherwise. Or nothing they were willing to talk about, at any rate.” And Wasiq Wasiq said that the case of the Batley Grammar School teacher, who was still in hiding, indicated that illiberal Islamic blasphemy laws were creeping into liberal democracies like Britain, as in France with the Charlie Hebdo and Samuel Paty attacks.

Heather Mac Donald writing in City Journal made a similar point about the reaction to this week’s New York City subway shooting, with all the people commenting on it tip-toeing around the fact that the shooter was a black nationalist – or outright ignoring it:

Had a white male entered a New York subway car in a construction vest and gas mask, carrying a hatchet, a nine-millimeter handgun, extended ammo magazines, gasoline, fireworks, and two smoke grenades; had he then shot off at least 33 rounds, hitting ten people, the Biden administration and the media would have immediately raised an alarm about white nationalist violence. The shooter’s race would have led every story about such an attempted massacre; pundits would have immediately speculated about hate crime and domestic terrorism…

If that hypothetical white subway shooter had then been discovered to have posted tirades about black people, had he called for whites to get a gun and start shooting blacks, the global media would be in nuclear meltdown about white supremacy. Protests would be breaking out across the country and corporations would be emitting an avalanche of press releases about America’s racial injustice.

Instead, since the smoke-bomb detonating, race-ranting shooter on a New York City N train Tuesday morning was black, his race and apparent anti-white hatred are nearly taboo subjects.

Social media and the genealogy of culture war

In UnHerd, FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle wrote about the hyperbolic accusations thrown around by activists and how these lead to defamation, saying: “Many activists are explicit about their refusal to debate their ideas – for the simple reason they would collapse under scrutiny – and one of the ways this can be achieved is to destabilise shared definitions of words. In their world, libel simply cannot exist, because the meaning of language has become a purely subjective matter.”

Another member of our Advisory Council, Eric Kaufman, argued in UnHerd that Francis Fukuyama, though correct in identifying that “Liberalism is in peril”, failed to understand the role of “Left-modernism” in undermining it: “Progressive illiberalism began with affirmative action in the 70s, cooked up political correctness and speech codes in the 90s, and metastasised into cancel culture and anti-whiteness in the 2010s.”

Kat Rosenfield, also in UnHerd, looked at how the hubris of MeToo led to its collapse: “At the height of the movement’s influence, a choice was made: to be relentless, to rejoice in punishing those who not only transgressed but questioned the orthodoxy, and to scoff at the idea that these excesses might ever come back to haunt us… It took a while to realise that we had created a toxic culture in which contrition was seen as pointless. And it was, ironically, the greatest gift the movement could give to its enemies: the courage that comes from having nothing to lose.”

Jonathan Haidt wrote in the Atlantic about how social media – and specifically the retweet and share tools that enabled information to go viral – “encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics”, shredding social norms, trust and consensus. Haidt said: “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves… When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.” In Persuasion, Emma Camp, whose New York Times article about the chilling effects on campus free speech provoked widespread online ire from US progressives, wrote about how a culture of vindictiveness and bad-faith assertions create a climate of fear.

As Elon Musk elected not to take a seat on Twitter’s board, instead positioning himself to take over the company , the New York Post reported that Twitter workers described the atmosphere there as a “shit-show” and felt “super stressed”. Satirical news site the Babylon Bee wrote: “With Elon Musk becoming Twitter’s largest stakeholder… many within the company are worried he may turn their free speech platform into a platform that actually allows free speech.” As predicted, Musk has now launched a takeover bid, offering $41.4bn for all remaining shares and writing in a letter to Bret Taylor, Twitter’s Board Chair: “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy. However, since making my investment I now realise the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form.”

Event: Living Freedom Summer School

For free speech enthusiasts aged 18-30 the Living Freedom Summer School, organised by the BoI charity and supported by the Free Speech Champions project, provides a unique opportunity to be part of a stimulating forum for around 60 young advocates of freedom who will attend expert talks, hear from writers, critics and campaigners, and participate in debates, seminars and workshops. The three-day residential school takes place in central London between 30 June and 2 July. Applications must be submitted by Sunday 29 May. If you are over the age limit, please spread the word to younger folk.

Gillian Philip Fundraiser

We’ve launched a CrowdJustice fundraiser on behalf of our member Gillian Philip, a writer of young-adult fiction whose contract was terminated after she expressed the belief that biological sex is real. Her mortal sin was adding the hashtag #IStandwithJKRowling to her Twitter account, which immediately led to demands that her publisher dump her and, needless to say, it did just that. Gillian’s contract was ended, and her agent abandoned her, just one month after the death of her husband. The effect on her was shattering. Today she works as a courier and an HGV driver to make ends meet. Please help Gillian fight for her freedom of speech by giving what you can to the crowdfunder here.

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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.

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