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 Online Safety Bill to be paused: but is it goodbye… or just au revoir?

Along with other civil liberties groups, the Free Speech Union has long been concerned about the impact of the Online Safety Bill on free speech and freedom of expression (you can read our briefing documents here, here and here and some of FSU General Secretary Toby Young’s recent articles are here and here). That’s why on Monday, with the bill at a ‘hair’s breadth’ away from the statute book, Toby wrote to all FSU members and supporters urging them to use our website’s new letter generator to write to their MP and ask that he or she look again at the Bill (the page is here), and ask, at the very least, for it be held over until the Autumn when a new leader is in place. 

The Bill was at report stage, and scheduled to have its third reading in the Commons next week, when we pressed the ‘send’ button on that request for support. Less than 72 hours later, news began to filter out of Westminster that the Bill had been dropped from next week’s Parliamentary business with a view to it returning “in the Autumn”. Politics Home broke the story, noting that “concerns have been raised by supporters of the Bill that it could subsequently be scrapped as its return later this year will be dependent on the focus of the new Prime Minister”.

Has there ever been a more successful letter writing campaign in the history of western democracy? The idea was for members to correspond with their respective local MPs, not break them psychologically before playing on them as on stringed instruments. No matter. Clearly, the FSU owes a huge debt of gratitude to its members and supporters for using our new, fast and efficient online system to fire off so many compelling rhetorical salvos.

Whatever the ultimate cause of the Parliamentary postponement, the FSU believes that in the circumstances it was the right thing to do. The bill is a complicated, far-reaching piece of legislation that will have a huge impact on what people can (and can’t) say online, and it was surely madness to try and rush it through while a leadership contest was taking place, particularly as one of the candidates – Kemi Badenoch – had called for a major rethink of the Bill.

Will the temporary postponement quietly segue into complete abandonment? Some of the press seemed to think so, suggesting that the Bill had either “run out of time” (Times), or that it was to be “scrapped” (Telegraph), “killed off” (Guardian) or “axed” (iNews, Metro). Others were a little more circumspect, however, describing it as “paused” (Computer Weekly), “put on hold” (BBC, Evening Standard) or “delayed” (Mirror, Drum, Independent, HuffPost).

In truth, much will now depend on what Politics Home described a little earlier as “the focus of the new Prime Minister”. Of the five remaining Tory Party leadership candidates, the only one so far to have mentioned the Bill in any meaningful way is Kemi Badenoch. Much to the annoyance of Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – who has been a staunch champion of the Bill (Independent) – Ms Badenoch isn’t a fan, viewing the proposed law as little more than an exercise in “legislating for hurt feelings”, and one, moreover, that “will have some serious implications for free speech”. (Guardian). She also made clear this week that despite having “supported the government in every single bill since becoming an MP” she was “not going to be supporting it this week in its present form”. (Guido). Why? Because “it is in no fit state to become law”. (Sky News).

All of which sounds distinctly promising… until you reflect on the phrase, “in its present form”. As with any politician, Ms Badenoch is leaving herself some wriggle room here, just in case she wins the leadership contest and needs to bring the bill back come the Autumn. There are, after all, many members of the Parliamentary Conservative Party who still believe in the Bill – as evidenced last week, for instance, by Priti Patel’s op-ed for the Telegraph.

Given how unlikely it is that any of the other candidates will want to say whether, how – or even if – it will form part of their “focus” once they became leader either, the most we can say about this week’s postponement is that it delays by a few months the passage of either the Bill as currently constituted, or some watered-down version thereof, into law. The fact that it has been delayed is, nevertheless, a good sign. As the former MP Ruth Smeeth, now chief executive of Index On Censorship put it, the delay is “great news” (Evening Standard) because it provides campaign groups like the FSU with valuable extra time to try and kill the Bill or, at the very least, improve it via amendments.

Just as importantly, the delay gives FSU members more time to pursue what thus far appears to have been a ruthlessly executed campaign of letter writing. In the coming months it’s going to be more important than ever to keep up the pressure on legislators, and one very effective way for members to do so will be to use our new tool to write to their local MPs. Letter writing of this kind can often seem like a bit of a long shot – a worthy exercise in representative democracy, no doubt, and one that unquestionably puts a Lockean spring in the step of all who try it… but a long shot, nonetheless.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Parliament works on a constituency basis, which means that the more people write to their MPs, the more those MPs can ‘take the pulse’ of the areas they represent. Regardless of your MP’s party and regardless of whether you voted for them or not, they have to represent you and respond to your communications – which means the more we are able to demonstrate that a lot of people in any given area want this Bill rethought, the more individual MPs will be influenced to act, perhaps even tabling written questions that, in this case, will require a response from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Besides, given that it took less than 48 hours for an initial fusillade of articulate yet firmly worded missives from FSU members to force the Government into dropping the Bill from next week’s Parliamentary business, one can only wonder at the sort of legislative havoc a sustained onslaught between now and the Autumn might not wreak.

‘Legal but harmful’: Clause 13 and the Online Safety Bill

Leading by example on the letter writing front this week were nine senior Tories whom the Telegraph described as “demand[ing] that Nadine Dorries ditch plans to regulate legal but harmful content online”. The group, which included FSU Advisory Council member Lord Frost, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, as well as David Davis and Steve Baker, wrote to the Culture Secretary urging the Government to remove clause 13 from the Bill. “We are concerned,” they explained, “about both the legal precedent set by the state targeting so-called ‘legal but harmful’ speech and the censorious impact this measure would have.”

On the ‘legal but harmful’ point, they reminded the Secretary of State that the concept of putting restrictions on such speech “undermines our long tradition of promoting freedom of expression”, and is therefore “as unConservative as it is unBritish”. The letter’s authors also took issue with the nature of the regulatory architecture envisaged by clause 13. To recall, clause 13 requires the Secretary of State to bring forward secondary legislation in the form of a statutory instrument (or SI) that will identify “priority” harms that providers will be under a particular obligation to protect us from. In other words, it will be in this secondary legislation (which, by the way, can’t be amended because SIs aren’t amendable), and not the Bill per se, that the ‘legal but harmful’ content will be identified. As Lord Frost and his co-authors point out, the SI would give the Government unprecedented powers to designate ‘harmful’ content, thus allowing a future secretary of state to “use the power to lean on the tech giants to remove speech they subjectively dislike”. And here’s the thing, because even if an SI brought forward by, say, Nadine Dorries isn’t overly censorious, what guarantee do we have that her successors will be equally restrained? Very little, say the letter’s authors: “The ratcheting effect on our civil liberties is already happening in real time,” they said. “The Labour Party”, for instance, “has [already] expressed its intention to expand the regulatory framework to include ‘health-related misinformation and disinformation’” (on which point, see Unherd).

If there’s one point that FSU members should really try to get across to their respective local MPs (while, of course, utilising our new, email generating tool here), it’s that clause 13 needs either to be drastically rethought, or removed entirely, from the Bill.

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may already have come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise in a ‘safe space’. During the remainder of July, we will be hosting regional Speakeasies in Birmingham (20th July), Edinburgh (21st July) and Brighton (27th July). Edinburgh is now fully booked, although members wishing to attend are welcome to join the waiting list as there will probably be some cancellations. Birmingham and Brighton have a few places available, so you should book now if you want to attend. You can check out the dates of these in the new events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members separately. Details of venues and speakers are not advertised to the general public and will be emailed to members with Eventbrite links so they can sign up for the nearest event to them. Members are welcome to bring guests – particularly those likely to join the FSU!

Free Speech Champions – the Living Freedom Event

Earlier this month, the Free Speech Champions joined sixty young people in central London for the Living Freedom summer school – three days of lectures, discussions and debates, focussed on the erosion of our liberties. Speakers included Maya Forstater, Harry Miller, Arif Ahmed and our very own Toby Young. You can read an account of the event by the founder of the Free Speech Champions Inaya Folarin Iman here and another by literature student and Free Speech Champion Max Mitchell here. The Free Speech Champions were also part of a House of Lords event celebrating freedom of expression on Monday and their banner provided the backdrop to the podium from which Kemi Badenoch, Maya Forstater, Sharron Davies and many others declared their commitment to free speech. You can take a look at some of the pictures from the event on the Free Speech Champions Twitter feed (here).

Double Jeopardy – download the new podcast now!

Ken Macdonald QC and Tim Owen QC, both barristers at leading human rights set Matrix chambers, recently launched Double Jeopardy, a law and politics podcast. Ken was one of the co-founders of Matrix, and went on to become Director of Public Prosecutions and then Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. He is now a crossbench peer in the Lords. In the latest episode, Ken and Tim talk to philosopher Professor Kathleen Stock about science, gender, and the importance of free speech. You can listen to the third episode of the Double Jeopardy podcast on Apple here, or on Spotify here.

Oxford University and the free speech group

“It’s like asking Jack the Ripper to chair a forum on women’s safety.” So said FSU General Secretary Toby Young in the Telegraph on learning that the ex-head of controversial charity Stonewall, David Isaac, and the co-founder of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, Simukai Chigudu, were helping to draw up a free speech ‘framework’ for Oxford University.

According to the Mail, the framework is the creation of the Oxford Free Speech Forum, a group understood to involve five colleges, including Worcester, Brasenose, Somerville, Magdalen and Mansfield. The group’s Chairman, David Isaac, is provost of Worcester College, where he was recently taken to task by the FSU after apologising to students for “distress” caused by hosting a Christian summer camp and then cancelling a provisional booking by the group for the year after. (Thanks to our efforts, the college later admitted it “misled” students over the event and released a statement saying it was committed “to the right to freedom of speech and religious belief” – you can read about the case here).

The forum is seeking to “provide advice on how academics and students should interpret and act upon the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, currently going through Parliament” (Mail), with student groups apparently having been “sent away” over summer “to discuss the principles of the group’s free speech framework before its wording is finalised across the university in the autumn” (Telegraph). Having attended the group’s most recent forum, a student described it to the Telegraph as “sinister” and “backwards”, before adding that “the university has already rightly been criticised for restricting free speech many times before. Things are already worse than the public realise, for many students and staff members. As a world-leading university, I worry where exactly we are leading.”

What’s particularly intriguing about this story is that the “organisers” of the forum – a category which surely must include Mr Isaac, as the group’s Chairman – describe themselves as wanting to “respectfully tackle difficult decisions about issues like race, disability and trans rights”. In the context of ongoing debates around free speech and academic freedom in higher education, “respectfully” is an interesting word for them to have used.

In 2020, academics at Cambridge voted to amend the University’s proposed statement on freedom of speech which included an expectation that students, staff and visitors should “be respectful of the differing opinions of others”. The amendment, which was voted through, replaced “be respectful of” with “tolerate”. (BBC). Last month, however, the Times reported that academics at that same institution were now having to battle HR over the draft of another policy document that exhibited similarly problematic, academic freedom infringing language. The document’s stated aim was to “prevent inappropriate behaviour in the workplace” by creating “a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect [!] and courtesy”. As one academic explained to the Times Higher Education, “it is unreasonable to expect atheists to respect the views of religious believers, or to expect climate change activists to respect the work of earth scientists who are trying to make mining or oil drilling more efficient. What is reasonable is to expect members of the university to treat each other with tolerance and courtesy.”

Legally minded leaders like Mr Isaac tend to choose their words carefully, which makes it all the more difficult to believe that the word “respectfully” was plucked at random from the linguistic ether while this group sought to present its intended aims and objectives to the media. Is Mr Isaac’s free speech ‘framework’ about to repeat the mistakes of Cambridge University’s HR department? Time will tell.

According to the Times, Oxford declined to confirm whether the voluntary new guidance will override its existing free speech policies.

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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