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.

FSU Online In-Depth: Free speech in schools

Our schedule of online and in-person events for September to December kicks off on 13th September with an Online In-Depth. A panel of experts and campaigners will be discussing how and why free speech issues are coming up more and more often in primary and secondary schools. Unlike our usual online events, this one will be open to anyone who is interested in this issue, so please feel free to share the details. You can register here to receive the Zoom link.

FSU supporters extract further free speech pledges from Tory leadership candidates

The FSU’s campaigning tool has already empowered members to send over 4,000 emails to the Tory leadership candidates, urging them to adopt our Free Speech Manifesto. According to the FSU’s independent opinion polling, only two per cent of the public strongly agree that the Government is doing a good job of standing up for free speech, so it’s hardly surprising Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have been paying attention. The FSU Manifesto outlines key commitments for the next Prime Minister that would protect free speech in education, policing, upcoming legislation, workers’ rights and equalities.

With less than two weeks to go until the announcement of the next Tory leader and Prime Minister, it’s clear that campaigning by FSU members has helped propel free speech to the top of the agenda in the leadership race.

According to the Telegraph, both candidates are now likely to scrap clause 13 of the Online Safety Bill, which aims to regulate so-called ‘legal but harmful’ content, amid concerns it would grant the imprimatur of official approval to ‘woke’ social media firms to continue removing any posts that challenge their progressive agenda. A spokesman for Mr Sunak said that “his concern with the bill as drafted is that it censors free speech amongst adults, which he does not support”.

At the Hustings in Manchester, Liz Truss also gave her firmest assurance yet that those parts of the Bill that pose a threat to free speech will either be ditched entirely or amended. (GB News). “What is right offline, is what should be right online,” she said in response to a question from the audience: “I believe in free speech… it’s important that adults are able to speak freely.” “Is that a commitment to amend the Online Safety Bill?”, asked host Alistair Stewart. “Yes, that is a pledge,” she confirmed.

Mr Sunak also spoke out in favour of revising the Equality Act 2010 to ensure it cannot be misused to push an ideological agenda and degrade liberal values. When a student stood up in Manchester to tell how he was reprimanded by his college after posting messages on Twitter in support of the Government’s Rwanda deal, the former Chancellor responded: “I want to change the public sector equality duty so that universities are ‘forced’ to uphold free speech on campus”. (Telegraph). During his opening speech at the West Midlands hustings later in the week, Mr Sunak also remarked: “I want to take on this lefty woke culture that seems to want to cancel our history, our values and our [sic] women.” (GB News, Times).

The FSU is delighted to see the leadership candidates addressing concerns about the Online Safety Bill and the Equality Act, but we want to see similar commitments to other issues in our Free Speech Manifesto: stronger protections for workers’ speech rights, the scrapping of the Orwellian ‘non-crime hate incidents’ and an end to political indoctrination in schools. 

If you’re a Conservative Party member and you haven’t already done so, please use our campaigning tool to email the candidates. If you’ve sent them an email, remember that the template can be tweaked to accommodate whatever free speech issues you’d now like to raise with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. And if you’re not a member the Conservative Party, please use our other tool to send your MP an email about the shortcomings of the Online Safety Bill.

Gillian Philip fundraiser – show your support for a ground-breaking appeal!

Last week, the Chair of the Society of Authors (SoA), Joanne Harris, was caught up in a row after appearing to mock J.K. Rowling after the Harry Potter author received a death threat on Twitter. The row continued this week with the Guardian reporting “fresh concerns” that Britain’s largest trade union for published writers had handled recent free speech controversies inappropriately. Speaking to GB News, FSU General Secretary Toby Young wasn’t surprised. It was, he said, “in keeping with Joanne Harris’s rather ambivalent relationship with free speech”. As the SoA’s Chair she had “repeatedly failed to defend numerous gender critical authors who are at odds with transgender activists, not just JK Rowling but also Gillian Philip, who is a member of the FSU”.

With our help, Gillian brought an Employment Tribunal claim against her former publishers last year on the grounds that they terminated her contract to write children’s books because she expressed her solidarity with JK Rowling on Twitter. She alleges unlawful discrimination, and the case is a landmark in the fight for a woman’s right to state biological facts without fear of losing her job. Gender critical writers such as Kate Clanchy, Julie Burchill and Jenny Lindsay have all faced threats to their livelihood as a result of expressing gender critical views. 

But the case also has important repercussions beyond the gender debate. Despite top-drawer representation from Shah Qureshi of Irwin Mitchell solicitors and barrister David Mitchell, the preliminary hearing found that Gillian was not entitled to the protection of the Equality Act 2010 because she was employed as a ‘contract writer’ rather than as an ‘employee’.

As the author Nick Tyrone pointed out recently for Spiked, temporary contract work like this, in which authors are “openly ripped off” and left with few if any workers’ rights, is a “major problem” in the publishing industry and one that, under Joanne Harris’s leadership, the SoA has made “little effort to tackle”.

Whether contract writers are ‘workers’ is therefore an important question of law. Without such status, writers do not benefit from employment legislation preventing unfair dismissal or the protections of the Equality Act against unlawful discrimination. Maya Forstater’s case established that gender critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act, but this judgement is rendered meaningless if workers can simply be described as ‘contractors’ and deprived of its protections. Unscrupulous employers are being empowered to side-step employment protections – by designating freelancers as ‘independent’ they have the power to silence writers and other precariously employed people.

That’s why it’s vital we support Gillian as she appeals her case and defends her right to freedom of speech and the protections of employment law. The outbreak of creativity crushing close-mindedness in the publishing industry must be challenged and the legal rights of thousands of precariously employed people who make their living through creative expression must be defended. It is in everyone’s interests that authors like Gillian, who entertain and inspire us, enjoy the legal protections they need to express themselves freely and securely.

Once again, we need your help. This appeal could be of ground-breaking importance for the publishing industry, determining not only the freedom of speech of contract writers, but also pay and conditions. Please join the fight and support Gillian’s crowd funder here.

What WH Smith can tell us about the Online Safety Bill’s “hidden harms”

Writing for the Spectator, Lord Sumption set out to uncover the “hidden harms” in the Online Safety Bill. The “real vice” of the bill, he said, is that the new category of speech it creates – legal but harmful – relies on an understanding of psychological ‘harm’ that is “almost entirely subjective” and “will vary from one internet user to the next”. The problem with legislation built around subjectively perceived notions of harm is that it is “liable to adopt, by default, the standard of the most easily shocked, upset or offended”, wrote Sumption. Faced with the need to censor categories of material liable to inflict certain types of harm on certain categories of people and threatened with enormous fines if they do not, he pointed out, the big social media companies will take the course involving the lease risk – “if in doubt, cut it out”. (FSU General Secretary Toby Young made a similar point on GB News).

As if on cue, the offline world offered up a perfect demonstration of the dangers of attuning censorship systems to the subjective feelings of individuals, when a conservative journal was taken off WH Smith’s shelves thanks to a single complaint being filed by a customer who claimed to have been offended by its content. (Remix). The latest edition of The European Conservative, a journal of philosophy, politics, and culture, featured a cartoon that satirised the over-enthusiastic teaching of LGBT content in schools, and carried an interview with democratically elected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

In a series of Instagram posts, the offended customer said he was “shocked” that such “fascist filth” could be sold in a mainstream British retailer and shared a screenshot of an email exchange between himself and “Libbie”, a WH Smith Customer Service Co-ordinator, in which she confirmed the store had “taken the decision to remove [the publication] from sale”.

The relationship an offline retailer like WH Smith has with its stock is inevitably less complex than the one a social media platform has with its user-generated content – at the last count, for instance, 300,000 status updates and 500,000 comments were being uploaded to Facebook every minute, with YouTube adding 500 hours’ worth of content during that same time period. Despite that relative lack of complexity, however, WH Smith’s instinctive response to a complaint from just one customer regarding “shocking” in-store content was still, in Lord Sumption’s terms, to “cut it out”. By default, the company had adopted the subjective standard of harm of the most easily offended individual.

It seems unlikely that the automated content moderation systems currently employed by online companies will devote any more time than high-street employees like “Libbie” to the question of whether or not legal content for which they are editorially responsible should be censored once vulnerable minorities – or, as the Times pointedly remarked this week, the “manipulative pressure groups” that purport to represent them – have complained that such material is capable of inflicting psychological ‘harm’.

Sousveillance – the FSU reacts to a growing threat to free speech on campus

Students at Britain’s oldest drama school have been urged to report teachers’ ‘microaggressions’ using QR codes placed in classrooms. (Mail, Telegraph). The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) has introduced a system of anonymous reporting for perceived slights or discrimination after consulting with its student body.

This system allows the school’s trainee actors, directors and technicians to report their tutors using QR codes placed around the school, which they can scan with their smartphones to access official complaint forms regarding microaggressions. (In the world according to woke identity politics, ‘microaggressions’ are acts of subtle discrimination, including turning one’s back on people, using incorrect pronouns or raising an eyebrow when black students or staff speak). Once scanned, the QR code gives students access to the official Lamda ‘Microaggression Reporting Form’, which asks them to recount incidents of microaggressions “in as much detail as possible” and suggest what they “would like done in response” to these perceived aggressions.

The FSU has legally represented many academics whose speech has been policed or silenced, and we are concerned about a growing trend in higher education institutions to utilise this form of surveillance – technically known as ‘sousveillance’ – in which members within a group monitor others within that same group, just like the Stasi’s system in East Germany during the Cold War.   

At Trinity Laban Conservatoire, for instance, an online portal now allows students and staff to log microaggressions anonymously, asking the reporter for details such as the date of the incident and the “protected characteristic to which the micro-aggression related”. The University of St Andrews also gives students and staff the option to report microaggressions anonymously online. Last year, the introduction of a similar reporting system was heavily criticised by Professors at the University of Cambridge. (Telegraph).

Speaking to the Telegraph about Lamda’s new reporting system, FSU Chief Legal Counsel, Bryn Harris, pointed out that what makes sousveillance “particularly insidious” is that it leaves teaching staff to the mercy of “the most hyper-sensitive (or vexatious) student in the seminar room, and openly cultivates a culture of fear-induced blandness”. Not only that, but it “carries deeply unpleasant reminiscences of totalitarian practice”. As Dr Harris reminds us, the past is littered with examples of “academic careers [that] have been ruined by universities tolerating, and even inducing, a culture of student denunciation”.

Thankfully, some higher education institutions have recently woken up to the new culture of intolerance that these systems are helping to cultivate – the University of Cambridge’s controversial ‘Report and Support’ website, for instance, was taken down just a week after its introduction. It’s time for university administrators at Lamda, Laban and St Andrews to follow suit and hit the ‘uninstall’ button on their own nascent sousveillance systems.

The American Historical Association capitulates to the woke mob

The President of the American Historical Association (AHA), Professor James Sweet, published an essay in the organisation’s magazine on the problem of “presentism” in academic historical writing. According to Sweet, an unsettling number of historians allow their political views to distort their interpretations of the past. As a historian of the African diaspora, he said he was “troubled” by the way contemporary narratives of the slave trade performed “historical erasures” to “confirm current political positions”. The problem, he argued, was that in “foreshortening and shaping history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions” historians were “undermin[ing] the discipline and “threaten[ing] its very integrity”. In that context, he proceeded to (gently) question the basic premise of The 1619 Project, a revisionist text that portrays ‘white supremacy’ and ‘anti-blackness’ as foundational to American history.

Within moments of this well-argued pushback against woke orthodoxies having appeared, “all hell broke loose on Twitter”. (Real Clear Politics). A Professor of History at Knox College led the pile-on, with a widely-retweeted thread calling on colleagues to bombard the AHA’s Board with emails protesting about Sweet’s column. Other tenured historians joined in, flooding the thread with profanity-laced attacks on Sweet’s gender and race, calling for his resignation, and, in the case of one Professor, apparently taking issue with historians offering any public criticism of the 1619 Project because such criticism would then be “weaponised by the right”.

Reviewing Professor Sweet’s piece for PowerLine on the same day, Steven Hayward half-jokingly guessed at what would happen now that “the mob had been summoned”, ending his piece with the line: “Cue Prof. Sweet’s apology tour (and perhaps the removal of the article) in three, two…”.

It was remarkably prescient. The next day the AHA tweeted a “public apology” from Sweet that reads like something he’d been required to sign at the end of a Maoist struggle session for academic wrongthink. He took “full responsibility” for the “harm” his essay had caused. He “regretted alienating Black colleagues and friends” (note the capital ‘B’ for ‘Black’, now mandatory in academia). He was “deeply sorry”. He “apologised” for the “damage” he had caused. He “hoped that he might redeem himself in future”. He was “listening and learning”.

As FSU General Secretary Toby Young has long pointed out, apologising in the hope one’s contrition might make the outrage mob disperse isn’t a good idea. In fact, it tends to have the opposite effect, whetting its appetite for more concessions and confessions. 

So it proved in this case. Sweet’s apology duly excited his activist colleagues but did little to placate their ire. (PowerLine). The resignation demands continued, and the fact that this white male historian’s criticisms of the 1619 Project would now inevitably be used by “right-wingers, Nazis, and other bad-faith actors… in the service of white supremacism”, as Professor Kevin Gannon put it, was compounded by an apology that many of the gathered pitchfork enthusiasts regarded as insincere. (Such apologies are always insufficiently pious in the eyes of the woke mobsters.)

In his original essay, Professor Sweet said he had recently “travelled to Ghana to research and write”, and that his first assignment while there “was a critical response to The 1619 Project” for a forthcoming piece in the AHA. No doubt the significance of the adjective “critical” won’t have escaped the attention of his hyperventilating detractors. To borrow a line from Steven Hayward: Cue Prof. Sweet’s apology tour (and perhaps the removal of the article) in three, two…

Facebook call for feedback on Censorship Policy

The Oversight Board of Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, issued a request for comment from members of the public in response to a request for guidance it had received regarding Meta’s Covid-19 misinformation policy, among other things. Toby decided to submit a comment, which he published on the Daily Sceptic. Here’s an extract:

In the past two-and-a-half years, you have either removed, or shadow-banned, or attached health warnings on all your social media platforms to any content challenging the response of governments, senior officials and public health authorities to the pandemic, whether it’s questioning the wisdom of the lockdown policy, expressing scepticism about the efficacy and safety of the Covid vaccines, or opposing mask mandates. Yet these are all subjects of legitimate scientific and political debate. You cannot claim this censorship was justified because undermining public confidence in those policies would make people less likely to comply with them and that, in turn, might cause harm, because whether or not those measures prevented more harm than they caused was precisely the issue under discussion. And the more time passes, the clearer it becomes that most if not all of these measures did in fact do more harm than good. It now seems overwhelmingly likely that by suppressing public debate about these policies, and thereby extending their duration, Meta itself caused harm.

Definitely worth reading in full.

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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