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.

Critical Race Theory

FSU Advisory Council member Joanna Williams – author of a new report for Civitas on anti-racist training courses – has written a piece for Spiked outlining the common elements in these programmes, including unconscious bias, microaggressions, and allyship. All these ideas are grounded in Critical Race Theory, which “lends academic legitimacy to the race experts and provides a theoretical basis for the content of their literature and workshops”. These programmes can be difficult for employees to resist, says Williams: “Critical Race Theory – truly the gift that keeps on giving – means that if you take part in training you will discover you are racist; but refusal to participate is also a sign of your racism.”

Writing in Quillette, Samantha Jones suggests a way of reviving Enlightenment values among young people who are attracted to critical theory and the “decolonization” of university curriculums. “The path to progress is definitely not paved by destroying the epistemological framework bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment,” she says. But the appeal of counter-Enlightenment ideas to students trying to establish their identity and independence must be acknowledged. She continues: “It is necessary to make Enlightenment ideas not merely palatable, but inspiring. Educators must respond to decolonization activists’ arguments, then explain why Enlightenment ideas are a better foundation for improving people’s lives all over the world.”

Ron Kelley, a bookmobile librarian serving the Navaho people in Flagstaff Arizona, was sacked last year for opposing the American Library Association’s (ALA) stance on Black Lives Matter (BLM). Kelley received a message on the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services listserve from the ALA expressing support for the BLM movement and wrote a lengthy response, arguing that “libraries should provide aid and information to ALL who seek it and not function as a politicized, prejudicial Advocacy Factory”. He described his own commitment to diversity and suggested books by black authors with alternative perspectives to BLM. He was promptly fired and, typically, many former colleagues contacted him privately to offer support, but none did so publicly. Kelley has started a new website, The Underground Library Free Thinkers Association, devoted to fighting back against cancel culture, which he says is heavily entrenched in the library world.

Cancel Culture

In the new edition of his 2018 book Reimagining Britain the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has made several additions, including praise for the BLM movement, criticism of the Government’s pandemic response, and doubt over the existence of “British values”. He also includes a defence of free speech, saying: “Cancel culture in the end cancels the oxygen on which it depends to exist; it is a parasite consuming the possibilities of liberty and justice.”

According to Noah Carl, cancel culture is “when activists pressure an institution to sanction someone because others perceived that they were psychologically or emotionally harmed by the individual’s speech (or historical actions)”. He argues that cancel culture is real, easily identifiable and getting worse. He says: “The new censoriousness is something that both conservatives and liberals should oppose.”

Jeremy Clarkson thinks he’s found a solution: instead of getting into trouble for sharing what he’s thinking, he’s decided to express what he isn’t thinking instead.

Free Speech at Universities

Lama Abu-Odeh, a law professor at Georgetown University, refused to sign a statement by non-black faculty “examining and revising [their] own flawed premises” and pledging to “confront white supremacist notions” after the dismissal of a colleague over her comments about black students under-performing at Georgetown Law. In a fascinating piece for Quillette, she provides a thorough analysis of how academia has come to be dominated by woke culture and a victimhood mentality. It has, she argues, led to “minoritarian rule: a coalition of minorities that, collectively, form a majority but that is nevertheless always able to invoke its minoritarian status to preserve its power. Power is presented as the absence of power to preserve actual power.” Progressive, left-leaning academics who have allowed this to happen over the years now feel they cannot stop the momentum of this “minoritarian rule” and instead find themselves offering apologies on demand. Professor Abu-Odeh says: “By constantly claiming to be offended, triggering Pavlovian apologies and vows to ‘do better’ from the progressoriat, who appear to have endless reservoirs of self-abnegation, the new elite establishes rituals that renew its rule and solicit ongoing consent to this rule.” She concludes: “If this echoes a Maoist take-over, that’s because it is. It passes the sniff test.”

James Flynn, the member of the FSU Advisory Council who died in December, talks about free speech at universities and how to protect it from the 21 minute mark in this video. He suggests that in order to make universities “less conformist and less antagonistic to diversity of opinion” they should be “more like the University of Chicago and less like Yale and Harvard”. He explains that the University of Chicago gives a letter to every new student saying “you’re going to find a lot of ideas upset you and that’s how you intellectually grow. We don’t abolish speakers. We don’t have a speech code.” Yale and Harvard, on the other hand, Flynn argues, are “leery of discussing basic ideals or basic problems that are unpopular… they also have speech codes… there are a whole range of practices going on at universities where students essentially bully staff into silence.”

Students at Aberdeen University have voted to include “trigger warnings” on all lectures, reading lists and seminars that “may cause harm to students”. The move has sparked a debate, hosted by Aberdeen student magazine The Courier, with Dr Stuart Waiton, a lecturer in sociology and criminology at Abertay University in Dundee, arguing against. He says: “Once ideas and issues, in and of themselves, are understood as a form of harm, the freedom to discuss and debate is hugely compromised, and the role of the lecturer is transformed into that of a therapist.” On the other side, Louise Henrard, vice-president for welfare at Aberdeen University Students’ Association, insists: “Trigger warnings might not be useful for all, but they do provide time and space for students to prepare at engaging effectively with distressing content rather than being taken by surprise.”

Unpopular opinions

A new publication called The Journal of Controversial Ideas, edited by Jeff McMahan of Oxford University, Francesca Minerva of the University of Milan and Peter Singer of Princeton University, has been launched to provide a “forum for careful, rigorous, unpolemical discussion of issues that are widely considered controversial”. Authors can submit their work using pseudonyms, or under their own names if they prefer, and the publication claims to have no affiliation and endorses no particular doctrine “other than freedom of thought and expression”. The new initiative is accepting donations via a GoFundMe page, which states: “We hope that this journal will show the value of embracing controversy as a means of getting closer to the truth, advancing knowledge, and reforming social and cultural paradigms. We believe, with John Stuart Mill, that even when mainstream views are true or justified, if they are never challenged, they risk becoming dead dogmas rather than living truths.” The idea for this magazine was first floated some time ago and the FSU’s Toby Young interviewed Jeff McMahan about it for the Quillette podcast in January 2019.

In a piece for The Critic comedian Simon Evans describes Free Speech and Why It Matters, the new book by his fellow comedian and FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle, as “terse, restrained and as carefully argued as a QC’s summing-up in a top-drawer courtroom drama”. Evans comments on how the free speech crisis and cancel culture have affected comedy, saying the current climate has “many of my fellow jesters and fools unsure whether people can really be trusted with free speech”. He disagrees: “To grow strong, as individuals and as a society, we need to lift heavy weights, swim in open water, and to hear bad opinions and hurty words. Without them, we atrophy as surely as an astronaut in zero gravity. Meanwhile, I look forward to offending you, outraging you and making you laugh, when speech is once again really free, if not free at the point of use, in a comedy club near you soon.”

Banning Words

The British Armed Forces have banned the use of certain gendered terms, including “lads”, “mankind” and “sportsmanship” as part of an attempt to rebrand as a gender neutral armed service. The move comes from the Ministry of Defence’s joint equality, diversity and inclusion unit, or Jedi. One soldier commented: “I think the bosses are trying to solve a problem which frankly doesn’t exist. There is no engrained or subconscious bias in the use of words like ‘lads’… This is nonsense.”

In a decision it admitted was politically motivated, toy company Mattel has followed its American counterpart Hasbro in removing 400 words from the official list for the board game Scrabble. Influenced by last year’s BLM protests, Mattel has banned “epithets against black, Pakistani and Irish people”. The global head of Scrabble games Ray Adler said that the company wanted to make the game more culturally relevant and added: “I’ve heard the argument that these are just words, but we believe they have meaning.” Darryl Francis, a British author who has been involved in the official list for four decades, resigned over the move, insisting: “Words listed in dictionaries and Scrabble lists are not slurs. They only become slurs when used with a derogatory purpose or intent, or used with a particular tone and in a particular context. Words in our familiar Scrabble word lists should not be removed because of a PR purpose disguised as promoting some kind of social betterment.”

Anti-free speech laws

FSU director of research Dr Radomir Tylecote says that the government’s Online Safety bill, planned for later this spring, will result in the censorship of lawful speech. Despite some recent improvements in the bill, “it is still a threat to our fundamental liberties” as it gives the Government the power, via its proposed internet regulator, to censor what it considers “offensive material”, along with content that it decides might cause “an adverse psychological impact on individuals”, and whatever it deems “hate content”, which can include “legal but harmful material”.

A petition is circulating calling on the Government to repeal Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which criminalises the sharing of material that is “grossly offensive” or considered “of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. A broad interpretation of this wording means jokes or private messages can constitute criminal acts.

“You may not like what our own parliament is doing to free speech in the UK,” says FSU Legal Advisory Council member Professor Andrew Tettenborn, but the EU is pursuing similar aims “in an even more sinister way” by deciding how much free speech member states can have. This is accomplished through the EU’s Framework Decision on hate speech as well as Article 83, which allows the EU to impose certain standards of criminal law on member states. The “increasingly authoritarian and dysfunctional EU” is insisting that an appropriate response to crime “cannot be sufficiently achieved by member states acting alone or in an uncoordinated manner” and prefers, according to Tettenborn, “a bureaucratic ideal of tidiness and the need for technical coordination under the control of a central authority”. The upshot? In the UK, where MPs who don’t uphold free speech can still be voted out, we “have a very good reason to be thankful for small Brexit mercies”.

A group of therapists are concerned about the government’s plans to introduce legislation banning conversion therapy and have launched a petition asking the government to safeguard crucial exploratory therapy for young children suffering from gender dysphoria. The petition states: “We are deeply concerned by the possibility of normal therapeutic practices being banned alongside conversion therapy. We ask the government not to criminalise essential, explorative therapy. Such well-meaning legislation might ironically deny vulnerable children the help they need.”

Muhammad Cartoons

Batley Grammar School, where a teacher was suspended last month after showing a cartoon of Muhammad to a Religious Studies class, says it is conducting an investigation into the “use of the offensive materials… We believe the right way forward is for an independent investigation to review the context in which the materials were used, and to make recommendations in relation to the religious studies curriculum so that the appropriate lessons can be learned, and action taken, where necessary”. The teacher at the centre of the row has had to go into hiding with his wife and children after protests outside the school gave rise to concerns for his safety. Two other teachers were also suspended in relation to the incident.

Batley Multi Academy Trust had issued a statement saying the investigation would begin on 12th April, but revealed this week that it had not yet begun. A spokesman said: “We have committed to commissioning a thorough and independent investigation which will get under way shortly. We will not be making any further public comments on this matter at this time. We will of course continue to support the whole school community, including all school staff, students and parents, throughout.”

A petition calling for the accused teacher to be reinstated – believed to have been started by a Batley Grammar School student – has now passed 71,000 signatures. The FSU has written several letters in defence of the teacher to the school’s headteacher, the Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire Police, and the Charity Commission, all of which can be read here.

The teacher has received support from leading critics of Islamic extremism, including author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled Somalia and the Netherlands after her criticisms of Islam led to threats on her own life, and ex-Muslim activist Yasmine Mohammed, who tweeted: “To force freethinkers to capitulate to Islam in Muslim majority countries, they execute us, hack us to death in the streets w machetes, beat us to death in our university dorms, lash us publicly in the streets… but in the West, free ppl just eagerly capitulate.”

Another victory for the Free Speech Union

The University of Leeds has dropped charges against a student and FSU member who was critical of Black Lives Matter in an online class. Other students were offended by his criticism – even though they were mild and expressed politely – and complained to the University, which responded by investigating him for a non-summary offence. If found guilty, the third-year student faced possible expulsion. The FSU wrote a letter to the University on his behalf and, with the help of FSU Legal Advisory Council member Rebecca Butler, the student was fully exonerated after a disciplinary hearing. In its letter to the student informing him of the outcome of the investigation, Leeds affirmed its commitment to free speech and freedom of expression within the law.

Jonathan Best, a student at Huddersfield University has received an apology from the University after he was put through a lengthy disciplinary process for alleged transphobia. An anonymous complaint was made and then dropped, but Best publicised the complaint, declaring his innocence, and was then accused of “sexual, homophobic, racial or other unlawful harassment”. He appealed to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator of Higher Education which ordered the University to pay him £800 in compensation. He commented: “In these free speech cases, the process is the punishment – getting through the process is grindingly difficult and stressful. It wears you down. It makes you wonder if speaking and writing honestly is worth it.”

Mill still matters

“Does Mill still matter?” is a free virtual event hosted by The Heterodox Academy and The Sphere Education Initiative that will take place on 22nd April at 7pm Eastern Standard Time, midnight in the UK. The evening marks the release of the second edition of All Minus One, a book based on the second chapter of Mill’s On Liberty, and the discussion will feature editors Jonathan Haidt and Richard Reeves, and illustrator Dave Cicirelli.

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Kind regards,

Andrew Mahon