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.

The Online Safety Bill returns to Parliament for its second reading

As Paul Goodman pointed out in ConHome this week, the origins of the Online Safety Bill lie in the troubling death of Molly Russell, a teenager who took her own life after viewing images of suicide and self-harm on Instagram. Theresa May’s government felt something should be done, and now, after five years, a White Paper, a consultation, a draft Bill, a joint committee of Parliamentarians, a report by that committee and a separate inquiry by the DCMS Select Committee, we’ve finally arrived at the Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Commons.  

The FSU has been tracking the legislation’s progress through Parliament. You can find our free, open access briefings here.

Our most recent press release about the Bill is here. It sets out the FSU’s position, which is, broadly speaking, that although the latest iteration of the Bill makes welcome provision to protect children from illegal content on the internet, it doesn’t afford online freedom of speech and expression the robust, meaningful protections we think it needs.

In sum, there’s still work to be done. Over the next few weeks, we’re looking forward to engaging with the FSU’s allies in both chambers of Parliament to ensure that the final version of the Bill more adequately balances the need to protect people from harm with protecting freedom of speech.

The Second Reading and the media reaction to the Second Reading

Few pieces of legislation can ever have been more anticipated and discussed before entering Parliament for their Second Reading. And yet, in the end, the debate felt rather cramped, and more than a little rushed. Not that that will have surprised John Whittingdale MP (Con, Maldon). A week prior to the debate, the former Culture Secretary was telling ConHome that it was quite wrong that only one day, Tuesday, had been allowed for the Second Reading, when really it needed two. Because at least one statement would precede the Second Reading, his guestimate was that speakers during the debate on “this hugely important and hideously complicated Bill [would] get about 30 seconds each”.

He wasn’t far off. Proceedings ended up getting squeezed into the last hour of Parliamentary business, and quite a few of the MPs who share the FSU’s concerns about the Bill couldn’t take to the floor. Joanna Cherry QC MP (SNP, Edinburgh), for instance, ended up releasing a draft of the speech she wanted to – but couldn’t – make on her Twitter account. It’s a cracker, too: “There is a very significant danger,” she wrote, “that the Bill, as drafted, will lead to censorship of legal speech by online platforms. In this respect the bill requires significant amendment.” (Joanna, by the way, recently joined the Advisory Council of the newly formed FSU Scotland – you can read about the widespread, cross-party support that that venture’s already attracted here.)

Another staunch champion of free speech, Steve Baker MP (Con, Wycombe), withdrew from speaking “due to the extreme pressure on time”. In a piece co-authored with Professor Paul Dolan for The Times, however, he set out his view that the legislation, as currently conceived, would cause social media companies to censor more content than the law strictly required.

The secretary of state’s arguments seem to rest on the bill only legally requiring companies to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content if it is already banned under its terms and conditions. Under the threat of penalties, [however] social media companies won’t risk allowing content that could come close to ‘legal but harmful’ to remain on its platform.

His worry is that, therefore, “free speech and free discussion on the internet will die a slow and painful death.”

During the debate itself, Adam Afriyie MP (Con, Windsor) expressed concern about the Bill’s problematic attempt to create a one-size-fits-all definition of ‘harmful’ content:

If we say ‘something is harmful, it shouldn’t be there’, we start to get into difficult territory, because what’s harmful for one person may not be harmful for another person.  

According to the Mail, many MPs were also worried that the Bill gave tech firms too much power to take news websites’ stories down. The Bill’s original proposals did in fact allow for news stories to be put back up after an appeal, but of course the ever-present danger with an appeal process is that it ends up taking so long that the stories in question are out of date before they get reinstated. Encouragingly, the Culture Secretary assured the Commons that the government was “doing further work to ensure that content remains up while appeals take place”. 

In other words, it looks like the Bill will end up offering robust free speech protections to journalists, which is good (obviously). But, as Gavin Robertson MP (DUP, Belfast East) asked, rather pointedly:

What about anyone else who wishes to enjoy freedom of expression in the online domain?

The FSU clipped footage of these contributions, and you can watch them on our Twitter.

In the debate’s aftermath, the philosopher Kathleen Stock produced a corker of a first column for UnHerd. As she points out in the opening paragraph, she’s one of the people whom the Bill will supposedly protect, but she thinks any attempt by the state to protect people from psychological distress is misguided and will inevitably have a chilling effect on free speech. “Delivering people from psychological distress,” she concludes, with about as much withering contempt as it’s possible to squeeze into one sentence, “is the business of therapists or priests, not lawmakers”.

Writing for Spiked, Matthew Lesh posed a thought provoking question. Over the past five years, much time and effort has been invested in debating the Bill and the many ways it will intentionally change the ways we interact online. But what of the Bill’s unintended consequences? As Lesh suggests, it will place huge regulatory burdens on over 25,000 companies. Might that lead to overseas companies blocking access for UK users to avoid the cost of complying and the associated regulatory risk? That was, after all, what over a thousand US news websites did following the introduction of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018. Time will tell.

Launch of the Scottish office of the Free Speech Union

Yesterday saw the launch of the Scottish arm of the Free Speech Union. We’ve launched our campaign in Edinburgh due to overwhelming demand from our Scottish members who are concerned that free speech is in peril north of the border. They’re worried in particular about the chilling effect of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act once it is activated.

It’s a venture that’s already attracted widespread, cross-party support. You can read about the many, high-profile politicians, academics and religious figures who’ve either given their support to the initiative, or joined the organisation’s Advisory Council in The Times here or on the Daily Sceptic here.

NHS workplace culture and the ‘chilling’ of free speech

“Why is it that so much ‘trans inclusive’ language is misogynistic and objectifying?”, asks Raquel Rosario Sanchez for Spiked.

There was a time when it was seen as rather sexist to describe women via their constituent body parts. According to the Daily Mail, however, Brighton and Sussex University Hospital NHS Trust is now advising its midwives and obstetricians that “some individuals may have preferred terminology for their anatomy”, and that staff should act accordingly. Maternity care has in the past typically been designed as a women-only service, and the Trust’s new guidelines set out to correct this exclusionary and regressive state of affairs. To better serve the needs of trans people, for instance, midwives should from now apparently find other words for ‘breasts’, ‘cervix’, ‘clitoris’, ‘labia’, ‘vulva’ and ‘uterus.’ Another suggestion is that they replace the word ‘vagina’ with the term… ‘front hole.’ 

The issue for the FSU in all of this isn’t so much whether anyone agrees with the guidance or not, but whether people are being allowed to debate whether, or to what extent, they agree with it. It’s concerning, then, to hear that many of the midwives who’ve received this advice are unhappy with it, “but because of the climate at the hospital they dare not say anything”.

Is a similar “climate” impacting the work of gender identity services elsewhere in the NHS? A story in The Times this week gives pause for thought. The Health Secretary was asked in the Commons this week whether he was concerned by the interim findings of a review that doctors felt “pressured to adopt an unquestioning approach” when treating children with gender dysphoria. The Cass Review, commissioned by the NHS, published its interim findings last month and found that there was a “lack of consensus and open discussion” about gender dysphoria. Too often, the report went on, the NHS “lacked the appropriate clinical response” because of “a lack of open discussion.” 

Compelled speech and the law

The FSU wrote to Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, last week to complain about a directive issued to Home Office staff. Guido Fawkes has more, but the gist of the story is that staff in the Visa, Status and Information Services department were sent a standardised format for their email signatures that included a suggestion they include their preferred gender pronouns. Was this directive a clumsily worded suggestion, or an attempt to compel employees to engage in a certain type of expression? It certainly looked like the latter.

This isn’t semantic nit-picking, either. It matters legally. Any attempt at compulsion would not only have breached the Equality Act 2010, but would also have violated those employees’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience and the right to free speech as stipulated under Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In our letter the FSU’s General Secretary, Toby Young, pointed out that the “directive, which appears to be mandatory, is a form of compelled speech that violates the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to free speech” under the European Convention on Human Rights. The letter continued:

We trust that this directive was based on a misunderstanding by an overzealous manager and is not official Home Office policy. Indeed, we think it cannot be as you have not included your pronouns in your biography on the UK government website. However, we would ask you to affirm that no Home Office employee has been penalised for refusing to include their pronouns in their email signatures.

You can read the FSU’s letter in full here.

A cis-gender, non-birthing person walks into a bar…

Award-winning actress and comedian, Catherine (“Am I bovvered?”) Tate recently warned that cancel culture was waging a “war on comedy” and called on common sense to prevail. “I think you can’t help but second guess yourself,” the Mail Online quoted her as telling the BBC’s Headliners podcast. “We are in a climate where it’s like touch paper. Things can be, and often are, wilfully misconstrued.” 

Omid Djalili touched on that same issue in an interview with BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur this week. “Can you be your genuine, funny self in a culture today which is so full of wokery, even cancel culture, that there is a war on jokes?” Sackur asked. “I think so,” Djalili replied:

If a comedian is clever, they can navigate it. If you just go for the gag, you may get into trouble. So in my concert pieces, there’s more explanation. When I look at the totality of my show it used to be 200 laughs. Now it’s 150 laughs. But you need that extra buffer.  

Djalili is a brilliant comedian. But even so, is ‘adaptation’ really the best response to cancel culture? What he’s suggesting sounds uncomfortably like a variation on the theme of a trigger warning.

The problem with that type of thing is that in explaining, in providing a trigger warning to an audience, you effectively concede the exact point your opponents want you to concede, namely, that what you’re doing isn’t really acceptable. The explanation ends up as a form of special dispensation – ‘just this once’. But then, of course, there’s always another time, another audience, another sensitivity to be considered, until, in the end, even Djalili’s detailed explanations might not be enough to stop him, as he puts it, “getting into trouble”.  

Campaign news

In 2020, writer Gillian Philip added the hashtag #IStandwithJKRowling to her Twitter account. Her publisher quickly caved to transactivists’ demands that they dump her – and, to add a classy, sensitive touch to the proceedings, they did so just one month after the death of her husband.

Gillian is a member of the FSU and today she needs your help to seek justice. She’s launched a legal claim in the Employment Tribunal against both HarperCollins and WorkingPartners. Her case is that she was discriminated against because of her gender-critical beliefs and because of her age. This follows the case of Maya Forstater v CGD UKEAT/0105/20/JOJ in which it was established that it is unlawful to discriminate against someone for having gender critical views.

Gillian’s aim is to win her case, and, in doing so, to stand up for others who have gender critical views, empowering them to speak up freely and without fear of being persecuted for their beliefs.   

You can read more about Gillian’s story and pledge your support 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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Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer