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.

The Times Higher Education reports the FSU’s victory over University of Essex

As reported in our monthly newsletter, the FSU recently scored a big victory in its battle with the University of Essex. “Free Speech Union legal pressure forces Essex harassment changes,” declared the headline in the Times Higher Education this week. Noting that the university has now “revised its policy on harassment under legal pressure from the Free Speech Union”, the THE felt the result “spotlighted the [FSU’s] influence and the prospect of it mounting bigger legal actions against institutions if England’s free speech bill becomes law”.

Professor Doug Stokes, Head of Planning and Development at the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter, described this as a “major victory” for the FSU in a piece for his Substack account. Bryn Harris, our Chief Legal Counsel, is quoted in Stokes’s piece expressing his hope that other universities will adopt Essex’s “sensible and encouraging approach”. Stokes himself doesn’t think they’ve got much choice. For too long, he argues, “universities have used the Equality Act to push an ideological agenda and degrade liberal values”,  which means that once the Higher Education Bill reaches the statue book, universities will quickly need to “revisit their own protocols”.

His recommendation would be that they take sound advice to redraft their policies and ensure they’re compliant with the new law, and that they take that advice not from their own legal teams – “who to date seem to be getting the law badly wrong” – but from academic freedom and equality law specialists. What’s more, “given the legislation seeks to ensure higher education providers are actively promoting academic freedom, an Office for Students compliance regime will back this up and likely seek long overdue scalps. Universities should also formalize positions, to ensure faculties/departments are compliant. The clock is ticking.”

The FSU writes to Cineworld after protests lead them to pull Muslim film

On 3 June, 2022 The Lady of Heaven, an independent film about the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, was released in cinemas across the UK, including at venues owned by Cineworld, Showcase and Vue. Yasser Al-Habib, the Shia Muslim cleric who wrote the screenplay, claims the film “conveys a message of love and peace”, although, as FSU Founding Director, Inaya Folarin Iman, pointed out for Spiked this week, not everyone appears to have got the memo on that one. The Bolton Council of Mosques called the film “blasphemous”, the Muslim Council of Britain described the film as “divisive”, and, according to Sky News, over 120,000 people have now signed a petition for the film to be pulled from UK cinemas.

Islamic hardliners have also been protesting outside cinemas across England. According to the Mail, one protestor at the Cineworld cinema in Bradford took to his megaphone to announce: “We are very offended. We have the right not to be offended.” No you don’t, retorted Brendan O’Neill, addressing the protestor directly in his latest Spectator article: “None of us does. Muslims, Christians, Scientologists, trans activists, Remainers, Brexiteers, whatever: none of us has the right not to be offended. Occasionally feeling offended is the price we pay for living in a free society.”

One video-clip on the internet appeared to show a cinema manager in Sheffield using a protestor’s megaphone (where do protestors buy all these megaphones?) to inform the gathered crowd that the film had been withdrawn from the schedule. “Allahu Akbar!” they yelled in victory. Brendan O’Neill described this as one of the most disturbing video clips he’d seen this year. It’s hard to disagree. “It wasn’t our decision to show it and we will not be showing it again”, the cinema manager can be heard to say at one point, and the fact that as he’s uttering those words he’s hemmed in on all sides by joyous protestors, with someone’s hand gripping his shoulder and another person’s arm placed around his back, lends the video an air of “solicitous menace” that’s not normally encountered in this country outside the pages of a Franz Kafka novel.

The illiberalism of the protesters was shocking enough; but for many commentators it was the surrender they managed to extract so effortlessly from large, national cinema chains that ought to worry anyone concerned about freedom of speech. Cineworld was the first to cave to the demands of this small group of religious extremists, cancelling all showings of the film and depriving the vast majority of its customers of their right to see the film for themselves and make up their own minds about it. “An act of pathetic cowardice,” was how Toby Young described it to the Epoch Times. “Cineworld should not allow an angry mob to dictate what films it shows in its cinemas,” he added. (Baroness Claire Fox made a similar point on GB News.)

In his capacity as FSU General Secretary, Toby has now written to the CEO of Cineworld, Moshe Greidinger, asking him to reconsider his decision to cancel all showings of the film. As Toby points out, the company’s decision to capitulate to the will of these protestors sets a dangerous precedent. Appeasement of this kind is all too likely to “encourage more extremist groups to make unreasonable demands, backed up with menacing protests” until, in the end, “the sectarian views of tiny, unrepresentative, hard-line groups will be imposed ever more widely on the rest of us”. If the right to free speech is not vigorously defended by all of us, he tells Greidinger, it “will simply wither and die”.

You can read the letter in full here. Over the next few weeks, the FSU will also be writing separately to police chief constables in Bolton, Birmingham and Sheffield asking for their assurance that cinemas that wish to show the film will be able to do so, with their staff and customers properly protected.

DCMS sub-committee on the Online Safety Bill hears free speech concerns

Writing for ConHome earlier this week, the Minister for Technology and the Digital Economy, Chris Philp, gave an upbeat assessment of the Online Safety Bill. Rather than endanger freedom of speech, he argued, it would actually enhance it.

It’s certainly true that there have been some improvements in the Government’s plans since the original White Paper of 2019. Nonetheless, and as City AM reported, a rather more circumspect view emerged from this week’s DCMS sub-committee meeting on the Bill. (You can watch the session here and some of the contributions from policy makers, academics and online safety experts have been clipped and are available on the FSU’s Twitter account here and here.)

“Is the OSB damaging to freedom of speech?” asked the Committee Chairman, Julian Knight MP, kicking the debate off. “As it’s currently written, it could be,” responded Ellen Judson, lead researcher at Demos. Ellen’s concern was the “heavy focus” on automated content moderation as the “primary solution” when it comes to the removal of ‘harmful’ content, and the related possibility that the Bill could end up “incentivising over-moderation” of content that, while perfectly legal, would likely breach a company’s terms and conditions.

The FSU shares Demos’s concern. Given that online providers will risk fines and other sanctions from Ofcom if they don’t remove “legal but harmful” content, but will be at minimal risk of punishment for failing to comply with the duty to “have regard” for freedom of speech, there’s a strong bias towards removal baked into the Bill’s regulatory structure. Our view is that if it isn’t kicked into the long grass, which looks unlikely, its free speech clauses need to be strengthened. In particular, we’ve argued for the imposition of two additional duties on providers: to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is not unduly infringed by excessive measures taken in pursuit of the duties of care under the Bill; and to prepare and publish a policy setting out how they will comply with this duty.

These amendments would mean providers had to be careful not to infringe freedom of expression while complying with the Bill’s various duties to protect users from ‘harm’. As it stands, the Bill will encourage an ‘if in doubt, remove’ approach, which would be inimical to freedom of expression.

The FSU has been tracking the legislation’s progress through Parliament and has just submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Bill Committee. You can find our briefings here and our most recent press release about the Bill here.

Register now for the FSU’s June speakeasy with Dr Joanna Williams

Register now to receive the Zoom link for our next Online Speakeasy on Wednesday 15th June at 6.30pm BST, when the FSU’s Toby Young will be joined by academic and author Dr Joanna Williams. Joanna’s book, How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason, has been described as “fearless” and “forensic”. She points out that the “authoritarian cult of woke isn’t as powerful as it seems”.

As a special offer for FSU members, Hewson Books, the independent London bookshop, has kindly agreed to provide signed copies of Joanna’s new book to those who purchase it via this special page.

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may have already come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise with each other and share their views without having to look over their shoulders. During late June and July, a series of Regional Speakeasies will be happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford. You can check out the dates of these in the new Events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members shortly. Members are welcome to bring guests, particularly those likely to join the FSU!

FSU Comedy Night on 29th June – get your tickets here!

London members, many of whom came to our packed meet-up in March, are encouraged to get tickets to our Summer Special Comedy Night on Wednesday 29th June, where there will be plenty of opportunities to meet other members, as well as the FSU’s staff. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby – who you can watch talking about the event here. Dominic will be performing a special set of comedy hits with his band the Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be joined by his legendary friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and Tom Mones. As this event is also a fund-raiser it is open to the public – get your tickets here.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – the FSU’s amendments

Days after he was hounded off a university campus by transactivists, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi reflected on his experience for the Mail on Sunday. “Free speech has to win,” he declared. “When exercising our fundamental right to free speech, we must allow others to do the same – and when we disagree, which will be often, we must respectfully and courteously debate the other side.” The fact that activists had “clearly intended to stop my speech and shut down the discussion” left Zahawi “more convinced than ever” that the crushing of free speech needs to be countered. “Put simply,” he said, “sometimes we must hear and consider points of view that we disagree with.” That is why “the Government is protecting these essential rights with our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill for universities”.

That Bill aims to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in English universities by imposing more robust legal duties on higher education providers. These include the duty to take reasonably practicable steps to protect the free speech of academic staff, non-academic staff, students and visitors to universities, as well as to actively promote freedom of speech.

The Bill goes to Report stage on 13th June, at which point MPs will be given an opportunity, on the floor of the House, to consider further amendments. In preparation, this week the Government published the amendments it’s intending to make to the Bill, including two put forward by the FSU.

The first of these is to remove the caveat that academics should only be entitled to these new, stronger protections if they’re writing or speaking “within their field of expertise”. This is something the FSU has been campaigning for since academics should be free to share and discuss ideas across a wide range of issues, not just in their specific “field of expertise”.

The second amendment – also accepted by the Government – is to extend the Bill’s scope to encompass student unions. This means they’ll also be obliged to uphold the new, more robust duties to protect free speech and, hopefully, will find it harder to no-platform controversial speakers.

The FSU believe the Bill cannot be passed too soon. As Toby pointed out in the Mail last week, we “get about a dozen requests for help a week from university students or academics who’ve got into trouble for exercising their lawful right to free speech”. We’ve intervened in hundreds of cases and in almost every one of those the individuals would have been in a stronger position had the new law been in place. Our briefing on the Bill can be found here. No doubt there will be naysayers coming to the fore as the Bill gets closer to the statue book, so if you want to see the FSU’s rebuttal of some of the most common criticisms, our briefing should help.

Professor Steven Greer interviewed by Bristol Free Speech Society

Bristol University’s Free Speech Society recently caught up with Steven Greer, Professor of Law at the University’s Law School, for a chat about the way militant minorities are increasingly intent on censoring the content of university courses and silencing any opinions they disagree with.

It was a great conversation, not least because Professor Greer was able to speak from personal experience. Back in October 2020, the University of Bristol Islamic Society (BRISOC) lodged a formal complaint against Professor Greer, claiming that one of his modules – ‘Islam, China and the Far East’ – was “Islamophobic”. Four months later, BRISOC launched a public campaign against Professor Greer, demanding the scrapping of that module. In July 2021, a Bristol University enquiry exonerated him, a verdict unanimously upheld on appeal in October 2021. However, at the start of the 2021-22 term the Law School removed Greer’s module from its syllabus to ensure “Muslim students do not feel that their religion is being singled out or in any way othered by the class material”.

“Outrageous” was FSU General Secretary Toby Young’s verdict at the time in the Mail on Sunday. “By kowtowing to the Islamic Society, the university has issued a gold-embossed invitation to activists to submit vexatious complaints about its employees.”

You can watch the interview in full here.

Sharing the newsletter

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