Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’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.

Academic freedom and the FSU’s defence of Dr Abhijit Sarkar

The Times Higher Education ran a story about Professor Nigel Biggar, the FSU’s Chairman, defending academic free speech at Taking the Politics out of University Teaching, an event hosted by the thinktank Politeia. “There was,” Nigel said, “a rising tendency in universities not to argue with positions but to attack the persons who hold them, smearing them as racist or white supremacist, or transphobic, and clamouring that their research be shut down, and that they be disciplined or even dismissed” – a tendency all too obviously exemplified this week by what Quillette described as Princeton University’s “disgraceful” decision to fire Professor Joshua Katz. What would help dampen this tendency, Nigel argued, was “a revision of the Equality Act 2010, so that it cannot be argued, normally, that [people holding] a point of view you disagree with constitutes a form of harassment”.

The fact that ideologically motivated academics are policing the thoughts and actions of colleagues and students is bad enough, but as Dr Arif Ahmed pointed out in Spiked, universities’ attempts to win the approval of bodies like Advance HE are having a similarly ‘chilling’ effect on academic freedom and free speech. For a university to win Advance HE’s Athena SWAN award, for instance, it must show commitment to certain ‘principles’. Back in 2015, those principles included “tackling the discriminatory treatment often experienced by trans people”. Now, however, an institution must agree to “fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine their own gender identity”. Is it the job of a university to “foster collective understanding” about the rightness of a particular ideological position, or to facilitate open debate? To Arif, a member of the FSU’s Advisory Council, this looks uncomfortably like a move away from tackling discrimination and into the realm of thought policing.

Similar issues were raised during Parliament’s ‘Freedom of Speech in Education’ debate this week, with Sir John Hayes calling for a review of universities’ free speech policies prior to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reaching the statue book. The review was necessary, he argued, because “universities continue to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above free speech’s ability to inspire, enthral and to move the academic agenda forward”. While making his case, Sir John cited the “sad, but by no means exceptional” case of FSU member Dr Abhijit Sarkar. The FSU defended Sarkar following Oxford University’s failure to protect his academic freedom. We’re now helping a group of senior academics petition Oxford to reform its policies and protect free speech and academic freedom in accordance with law.

The FSU endorses Sir John’s demand that universities get their policies in order now, before the Bill becomes law. Our view is that the Bill cannot be passed too soon (although we’d like to see some amendments to strengthen its free speech protections). We’ve intervened in many cases involving students or academics, and in almost every instance those individuals would have been in a stronger position had the new law been in place. Our briefing on the Bill can be found here.

Speakeasy with Dr Joanna Williams – book your place now!

Following the FSU’s successful online event with Douglas Murray on Wednesday, our next Speakeasy will be on Wednesday 15 June, 6:30pm BST. General Secretary Toby Young will be joined by the academic and author Dr Joanna Williams to discuss her new book: How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. Joanna is one of Britain’s sharpest and most eloquent writers on the phenomenon of ‘woke’. In How Woke Won, she forensically exposes how the ‘woke’ culture war has exploded into our schools, workplaces, media and politics – and why we need to fight back against this threat to our values and freedoms. Please register here to receive the Zoom link. 

Academic removed from an academic event for “disruptive” questions

Dr Jon Pike is a member of the FSU. He’s also a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University. His specialism is the philosophy and ethics of sport, and he’s also a world-leading expert in issues surrounding transgender inclusion in women’s sport. On 16 May 2022 Dr Pike attended an online event at Loughborough University entitled IAS Festival of Ideas: Transitions – Festival and Book Launch Gender Diversity and Sport: Interdisciplinary perspectives on increasing inclusivity. This topic was well within the parameters of his research and expertise, but he was removed from the event for asking questions about the fairness of allowing biological men to compete against women athletes. Dr Pike later received a terse email from Loughborough University’s Institute of Advanced Studies informing him that his removal had been necessary “due to the disruptive nature of [his] questioning”. The Free Speech Union has written to Loughborough University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Nick Jennings, to express its concern. We consider this to be a failure of the University to uphold its obligations to uphold free speech on campus, and an act of discrimination against Dr Pike on the grounds of his gender critical beliefs. The full text of the FSU’s letter is available here.

The Living Freedom Summer School open for applications until Sunday 29 May 

The applications deadline for the Living Freedom Summer School taking place in London this summer is Sunday 29 May. Organised in partnership with the Free Speech Champions project, the Summer School is a fantastic opportunity for young, critical thinkers to meet one another and debate the key freedom issues of our times. The full programme is now available. Speakers include the FSU’s own Toby Young and Karolien Celie, former cop and free speech campaigner Harry Miller, James Esses, writer and campaigner Caroline ffiske, Professor Frank Furedi, journalist Bruno Waterfield, Professor Arif Ahmed, writer Ella Whelan, author Dr Joanna Williams, journalist and historian Dr Zoe Strimpel… and many more.

The FSU’s schedule of events this summer

We have a packed schedule of events – online and in-person – over the coming months. You can keep up to date and check what’s going on at a glance thanks to our website’s brand new Events page. As most of our events are members-only, you won’t be able to book tickets from that public page, but our Events team will be sending out regular emails with full details and booking links, so do keep an eye out for them. If you don’t receive those emails, please let us know and we’ll make sure you’re on the mailing list (and if you’re on the mailing list and you still aren’t receiving those emails, then please check your junk mail inbox).

FSU Summer Comedy Night – tickets available now!

FSU members are warmly invited to round up their family and friends for the FSU Summer Special on Wednesday 29 June. This one night only extravaganza of comedy and music is being held in association with Comedy Unleashed – the home of free-thinking comedy. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby, and Dominic will also be performing a special set of comedy hits, old and new, with his amazing band The Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner and ubermeister of lounge, Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra… flamboyantly executed”. Frank will be bringing the glamour of Das Vegas to the stage with his legendary friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and TomMones. Book your tickets here to join the fun with the whole FSU team and 100s of FSU members. 

Free Speech Champions launch the new issue of TNT

The Free Speech Champions are going from strength to strength. The organisation packed out a London pub last Saturday to launch the second issue of their magazine The New Taboo, which aims to showcase a wide array of exciting new voices and promote free thinking for a new generation. You can read it online here or pick up a print copy at any of the FSU’s forthcoming events. Congratulations to all the contributors and especially to editor Daniel J Sharp and designer Izzi Jones!

The Parliamentary return of the Online Safety Bill

The Online Safety Bill, which has reached the Committee stage of its journey through Parliament, is attracting more and more criticism. The Economist warned of its potential to “change the face of the internet” and “incentivise” tech firms to censor their users en masse. Writing for The Critic, Toby Young agreed, describing the Bill as a “censors’ charter” and “the most serious threat to free speech since the proposal to force state regulation on the press in the aftermath of Leveson”.

Notoriously, the bill will force companies to remove “legal but harmful” content from their platforms. The fact that the largest firms could be fined up to 10% of their annual global turnover for failing to do so will inevitably create an incentive to remove anything remotely contentious. Might that have a chilling effect on free speech? Not according to Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State at DCMS. She believes the bill will strike a blow for freedom of expression. In his capacity as FSU General Secretary, Toby has met with DCMS ministers and officials who’ve also sought to reassure him that there’s nothing in the Bill requiring social media companies to remove “legal but harmful” content. The Cabinet minister responsible for the Bill, Chris Philp, even authored a piece for The Times this week in which the same claim appeared: “There is”, he wrote, “no requirement in the Bill at all to censor legal content.”

Toby describes this as a “sleight of hand”. The bill will “require the Secretary of State to bring forward secondary legislation in the form of a statutory instrument to identify ‘priority’ harms that providers will be under a particular obligation to protect us from”, he writes. So it will be the secondary legislation, and not the Bill per se, that identifies “legal but harmful” content. In other words, although the Bill won’t specify the “legal but harmful” subject matter that social media companies need to remove, it will nonetheless create a general obligation to remove it once it has been identified in a statutory instrument.

What worries Toby is that the press release accompanying the Bill cites “harassment” as an example of the type of “legal but harmful” content that will be included in the statutory instrument. Not that he’s a harassment enthusiast, of course; it’s just that it isn’t difficult to “imagine Parliament approving this secondary legislation, and activist groups then petitioning platforms to remove any content they find disagreeable on the grounds that it amounts to ‘harassment’ of the victims they claim to be representing”.

At this late stage, our “best hope” for averting this danger is to “persuade the Government to ditch the worst parts of the Bill – like the ‘legal but harmful’ stuff — and try to improve the rest as it passes through Parliament”, he says. The FSU currently has nine amendments it’s hoping to push through, and over the coming weeks we’re looking forward to engaging with allies in both houses of Parliament to ensure that the final version of the Bill better protects online freedom of speech.

The ‘woke’ capture of relationships and sex education

During Parliament’s ‘Political impartiality in schools’ debate this week, Gareth Bacon asked the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, whether he was concerned that “children were at risk of being indoctrinated by political activists masquerading as teachers?” It was a timely question. As the Mail reported this week, schools are increasingly outsourcing Relationships and Sex Education classes to “unregulated providers pushing a ‘woke’ agenda”. In response to Bacon’s question, Zahawi referenced the “clear, comprehensive guidance” his Department had published to help schools tackle these “sensitive issues”. But is this guidance being observed? Not according to The Critic’s Shonagh Dillon. “In reality”, she argued, “many RSE providers are not following the guidelines, and schools are not asking the questions they should of the material being used.” That was why, as she went on to point out, RSE provision had become “a wild west of competing providers, each vying to be more ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ than their rivals, with little regard for safeguarding or child development”. Dillon’s research into RSE provision uncovered teaching content aimed at children and teenagers that promoted “bondage and discipline + sadism and masochism” (BDSM), explained what a swinger was and celebrated “sex toy day” with hyperlinks to sites selling toys like “anal training sets” (or ‘butt plugs’, as they’re known in the porn industry). One provider had posters featuring friendly aliens that asked children “which pronouns do you want to use?” Another posted publicly accessible images to its Instagram account that declared: “Virginity benefits no one.”

Just as concerning from a free speech perspective was the Mail’s assertion that the content of lessons delivered by these providers is in some cases being obscured from parents. A child’s primary school in Lambeth, South London, for example, reportedly signed a contract with an external provider agreeing not to distribute teaching materials to parents. A mother who subsequently became worried about the content of the course – which allegedly involved a mixed sex group of 10 year-olds discussing masturbation in pairs – sent the school a freedom of information request, only to be informed that, “after consultation with both [the provider] and legal specialists, [the school] were unable to allow her to see the course materials”. 

Ricky Gervais vs transactivists: seconds out, round one…

The outrage over Ricky Gervais’s new stand-up special for Netflix was, as Ella Whelan pointed out in the Telegraph, “all too predictable”. Particular fury seems to have been roused by a section in which Gervais mocked trans activists. US LGBTQ rights group Glaad denounced the jokes as “dangerous”, the National Centre for Transgender Equality in the US condemned them as “dehumanising” and the Director of Communications at Stonewall, Robbie de Santos, felt it was “disappointing that Ricky has once again chosen to use his global platform to make fun of trans people – punching down is never funny”. In the new woke lexicon, this is apparently the greatest crime a modern comedian can commit – to “punch down” is to make fun of any person or group who is in some way deemed to be less “privileged” than the comedian.

Writing in the Telegraph, Michael Deacon wondered whether critics like de Santos might not have misunderstood at whom Gervais’s jokes were targeted. The supposedly offensive part of the show, as Deacon explains, imagines an exchange between a woman and a hard line transactivist. The woman is nervous about someone with a penis entering the ladies’ loos. “What if he rapes me,” she asks. “What if she rapes you, you f***ing TERF whore!” the enraged activist screams back. To be sure, the joke is crude. “But it isn’t bullying,” points out Deacon. “It’s about bullying: the bullying of women by aggressive activists. The sort of activists who hounded Prof Kathleen Stock, the feminist academic, out of her job at Sussex University and constantly send threats and abuse to JK Rowling.” Surely, Deacon concludes, “by mocking bullies on behalf of their victims, Ricky Gervais is actually punching up, not down?”

Then again, was Gervais actually punching anyone at all? It’s certainly interesting the way de Santos’s woke metaphor forces us to personify humour’s intended targets, rendering the comedian either as an abuser (i.e., ‘punching down’) or a progressive campaigner (i.e., ‘punching up’). But what if Gervais was actually swinging away at an abstract set of ideas? His own explanation of his routine, offered to the Spectator, certainly suggests just such a possibility: “My target wasn’t trans folk, but trans activist ideology. I’ve always confronted dogma that oppresses people and limits freedom of expression.” The Spectator’s Debbie Hayton certainly felt it was time someone gave it the sort of satirical, no-holds barred thrashing that every other form of political ideology has had to endure since the European Enlightenment. And why not? “Trans activist ideology” is, after all, mixing it with the big boys now – capitalism, feminism, liberalism – having “shaken the foundations of our society and challenged the meaning of such fundamental concepts as men and women”.

Feliks Kwiatkowski fundraiser – show your support

Our member, Feliks Kwiatkowski, needs your help. After four decades as a barrister, his statutory regulator, the Bar Standards Board (“BSB”), brought charges against him for saying something a female colleague found offensive. Feliks was prosecuted, tried in public, fined and reprimanded. His unblemished professional reputation, built over 40 years, was tarnished. He seeks your help in appealing to the High Court, where his public hearing has been listed in the Administrative Court for 21 and 22 June this year. This case is about protecting the right to discuss and express views that some people may find offensive. It is about our right to disagree, which is being gradually eroded by professional bodies using their power as gate-keepers to suppress opinions that some people find disagreeable. This is suffocating freedom of speech in our free, or supposedly free, society. You can find out more 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. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer