Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a brief round-up of the free speech news of the week.

Muhammed cartoons

The teacher at Batley Grammar School who was suspended for showing his religious studies class cartoons depicting Muhammed has gone into hiding with his family under police protection. The angry mob that gathered outside the school has continued to protest, and pupils have been instructed to stay home. The teacher’s identity was revealed by a charity called Purpose of Life in an open letter to the school demanding he be sacked, and he has reportedly received death threats.

The teacher’s father says his son is “broken” and afraid to return to Batley. Reports of young Asian men looking through windows and trying the door of his house have led to the installation of a CCTV camera at the house. His father said: “The school has thrown my son under a bus. The lesson that he delivered in which the picture of the Prophet Muhammad was shown was part of the curriculum, it had been approved by the school. Other teachers have done exactly the same thing. So why is my son being victimised like this? The school should have come out fighting for him and made it clear to the protestors that if offence was caused, then it was not my son’s fault. It was the school’s policy to show this picture, it wasn’t an individual decision made by him.”

In support of that claim by the father, MailOnline reported yesterday that two more teachers at the school have been suspended, bringing the total to three.

In a piece for UnHerd, FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle wrote: “Teachers cannot be in the business of tailoring their pedagogic practices in order to appease the most intolerant elements of society.” That sentiment was echoed by Dr Rakib Ehsan in the Daily Mail who said: “Despite the indignation of the demonstrators, it is not the duty of such a school, in a secular education system, to accommodate every kind of religious sensibility.” Dr Ehsan also pointed out that “demonstrations seem to have been hijacked by the hardliners, many of whom appear to be young men with no real connection to the school. Some Batley parents have spoken privately of feeling intimidated.”

Dr Alyaa Ebbiary, Islamic studies researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, had a different take, saying: “From the majority Muslim community perspective it’s safe to say that showing images of the Prophet Muhammad would not be considered a ‘right’, but at best disrespectful, and at worst a provocation.”

Sara Tor of The Times agreed that it was disrespectful to show the cartoons and concluded that “society has an underlying disrespect for Muslims”. On the other hand, Joanna Rossiter insisted that “Islam seems to have been admitted into the magic circle of societal issues that are too taboo to debate”. In her piece in The Spectator, she called out the National Education Union for failing to offer the teacher any support. Incidentally, the Telegraph revealed that the NEU has donated to Purpose of Life, the charity that named the teacher.

Writing in The Critic Robert Poll attempted to strike a balance: “A small amount of self-censorship has always existed. It’s called good manners. And a certain amount has always existed in professional life too. It’s called professionalism. We defenders of free speech should pick our battles more carefully.”

A petition launched to urge the school not to fire the teacher has garnered nearly 70,000 signatures.

You can see the letters the FSU has written to the school, the local Chief Constable, the Charity Commission and the Education Secretary about this episode here and here. The Telegraph reports that the Charity Commission has already followed up the FSU’s complaint about the Purpose of Life.

Banning teachers

Alexander Price, a teacher at Denbigh High School in Wales, has been banned from the teaching profession by the Education Workforce Council (EWC), the Welsh government’s disciplinary body. He was sacked after an anonymous blog post in which he made general criticisms about students and staff at his school. The decision sets a dangerous precedent, argued FSU Legal Advisory Council member Professor Andrew Tettenborn in Spiked: “This is a requirement that effectively bars teachers from saying anything in public that may offend someone.” This ruling is limited to Wales, but FSU member Will Knowland, sacked from Eton College last year over a video lecture on masculinity, is preparing to face the English equivalent of the EWC in the independent sector, the Teaching Regulation Authority. Prof Tettenborn is not optimistic: “It remains to be seen what view the regulator will take on the problem of educational wrongthink and identity politics – but don’t hold out too much hope.”

Twitter Suppression

Epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University, one of the world’s most cited infectious disease experts, has been censored by Twitter for tweeting: “Thinking everyone must be vaccinated is as scientifically flawed as thinking nobody should. COVID vaccines are important for older high-risk people and their care-takers. Those with prior natural infection do not need it. Nor children.” His tweet now comes with a warning preventing users from liking or retweeting it. One of the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, Kulldorff also serves on the Covid-19 vaccine safety sub-group which advises the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration. He recently gave an interview to Lockdown Sceptics, a blog edited by FSU General Secretary Toby Young, in which he said it was dangerous to suppress dissent during a pandemic.

Cancellation of Ook and Gluk

Author of Captain Underpants Dav Pilkey has apologised after his latest book Ook and Gluk was cancelled for perpetuating “passive racism” towards Asian people. The book is about two “cave kids” who travel to the future and learn from a martial arts instructor called Master Wong. Publisher Scholastic has removed the book from its website and is recalling copies from libraries and schools. Pilkey said: “I hope that you, my readers, will forgive me, and learn from my mistake that even unintentional and passive stereotypes and racism are harmful to everyone. I apologize, and I pledge to do better.” He promised to “donate his advance and all royalties to groups dedicated to stopping violence against Asians and focussed on promoting diversity in children’s books and publishing.”

Lawful Crime

Nottinghamshire Police have published a page about hate crime on their website which says: “Hate crime can take any shape and isn’t always illegal behaviour.” Commenting on the assertion that legal behaviour can constitute a crime, FSU Director of Research Radomir Tylecote tweeted: “These *actually insane* nonsense words imply any human action could be hate crime. Perhaps we should thank @nottspolice for letting the cat out of the bag…”

Positive news for Free Speech

A US judge has ruled against Shawnee State University in Ohio for mandating the use of preferred gender pronouns due to the implications for free speech and freedom of religion. Professor Nicholas Meriwether argued that being compelled to use the preferred gender pronouns of a transgender student was at odds with his religious beliefs. Judge Amur Thapa of the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, saying: “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.”

Edinburgh University has emphasised the need to balance “freedom of expression” with efforts to “institutionalise racial equality” after complaints from The University of Edinburgh Race Equality Network (UoE EREN) about an article co-authored by retired professor Brian Charlesworth praising twentieth century scientist Sir Ronald Fisher. Fisher, who died in 1962, is the father of modern statistics, but his legacy is tainted by his endorsement of eugenics.  Charlesworth argued that “to deny honour to an individual because they were not perfect, and more importantly were not perfect as assessed from the perspective of hindsight, must be problematic”.

Jonathan Rauch writes in the new publication Persuasion about a number of pro-free speech groups that have been established to push back against cancel culture. Along with the FSU, which is in the process of opening a US branch, a website has been set up at Princeton University called Princetonians for Free Speech, Counterweight was launched in January by Helen Pluckrose and the Academic Freedom Alliance has been established to help defend professors under fire for breaching speech codes. Alongside his praise for these new initiatives, Rauch gives a warning: “Pluralistic liberals should warmly welcome the new free-speech activism while remaining cautiously aware that… they may be tempted to slip into the same kinds of harrying and bullying tactics that cancelers have perfected. Pressure groups are always at risk of capture by zealous factions and parochial agendas, whatever their founders’ good intentions. Those of us who are pluralists need to watch ourselves as vigilantly as we watch anti-pluralists.”

Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that “we have to hold on to freedom of speech” in the UK, describing cancel culture on university campuses as “very, very dangerous because you start with cancelling some views that you dislike and very quickly, you are cancelling everyone who disagrees. It’s a very dangerous process.” On the controversy over the use of cartoons at Batley Grammar School, he urged those upset by the cartoons not to respond with threats and violence, saying: “In other words, exercise your freedom of speech, but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech.” Despite the Church of England’s planned review into statues at churches, he insisted that history cannot be erased: “We cannot cancel history. We cannot cancel differences of opinion.”

Free Speech Champions

Free Speech Champions, the new initiative set up by FSU founding director Inaya Folarin Iman, is hosting an event on artistic freedom next week featuring Andrew Doyle and drag performer Vanity Von Glow. Many high-profile artists – including Sir Kazuo Ishiguro and Nick Cave – have warned that a culture of fear is thwarting the ability of artists, particularly young artists, to express themselves creatively. This event will explore that problem and discuss how to defend artistic freedom. You can register for the free online event here.

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Kind regards,

Andrew Mahon