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.

Richard Dawkins cancelled (again)

Richard Dawkins has incurred the wrath of the American Humanist Association for his latest act of blasphemy, this time a tweet questioning why it is frowned-upon to identify as a different race, but not as a different gender. As punishment, Professor Dawkins has been stripped of his Humanist of the Year award, given to him in 1996. He claimed he’d never added the award to his CV.

“Once a staunch enemy of religious zealots of every stripe, the association has been captured by the woke cult, a hard-Left ideological movement that is every bit as dogmatic and intolerant as fundamentalist Christians and Islamists,” writes our founder Toby Young in the Mail. Likewise, Debbie Hayton in the Spectator complains of the new “quasi-religious ideologies… taking root in spaces that the churches have vacated”.

Top universities in denial over free speech crisis

While the Guardian and Independent continue to see the free speech crisis as a right-wing invention, or a distraction invented by the Government to “pursue a culture war agenda”, universities have claimed that in 2020 just six events were cancelled. The vast amount of case work we have from students, academics and university employees paints a very different picture. This figure also does nothing to acknowledge the climate of self-censorship that now pervades British campuses.

The Russell Group of elite universities has vowed to protect “core values” of “free speech and academic freedom” and we’re working hard to ensure they actually uphold their legal obligation to do so. Some heartening news: according to one recent study, 81% of students think “freedom of expression is more important than ever”.

Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith says British universities “risk becoming mouthpieces for the CCP” because they are so financially dependent on China.

Parliament’s mandatory diversity training mocked by Lord Hannan

“Every new British lawmaker is required to take one obligatory course. Can you guess what it is about? How to move an amendment, maybe? Correct etiquette in the chamber? The proper registration of your financial interests? Election law? Of course not. The sole mandatory training course is called ‘Valuing Everyone Equally’,” writes the Conservative peer Dan Hannan in the Washington Examiner.

Hannan compares the spread of anti-discrimination workshops and Unconscious Bias Training in the UK to the Test Acts which barred individuals from holding public office in England in the 17th century unless they professed faith in the established religion.

There is “growing evidence that the diversity-industrial complex is not [just] a waste of time and money but an active source of the very problem it purports to tackle. Who will challenge the racket?” Well we’re fighting back. Read our briefing on Unconscious Bias Training and contact us if you need help.

Stop bloody bossing us about!

Join us for the Free Speech Union’s first Online Speakeasy on Wednesday 5th May, 7 – 8.30pm, on Zoom.

While live events are still unlocking, we thought we’d get things moving with our first Online Speakeasy. All members are invited to this free event in which FSU General Secretary Toby Young will be joined by journalist, parliamentary sketch-writer, theatre critic and author Quentin Letts for an evening of seriously irreverent conversation about free speech, why it matters and how it’s threatened today. Members will be able to join in with a live Q and A.

Quentin’s latest book, Stop Bloody Bossing Me About: Why We Need to Stop Being Told What to Do, is a spirited rant against the bossy-boots, the fear-mongers and the finger-waggers who seem to dominate civic and cultural life. 

Quentin Letts is parliamentary sketch-writer for the Times and theatre critic for the Sunday Times. He has been a Fleet Street journalist since the mid-1980s and has been, variously, a diarist, foreign correspondent and a columnist on the Telegraph, Mail and Times. He started writing parliamentary sketches when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister and is now on his seventh PM – and, journalistically, on his ninth life following various attempted ‘cancellations’. Quentin is also the author of Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain and Patronising Bastards.

You can register for your free ticket here. If you have any queries about this event, please email events@freespeechunion.org.

“Cancel culture kills”

While cancel culture has claimed many victims’ livelihoods, jobs, and reputations, has it now taken the life of Liam Scarlett, the choreographer who died suddenly last weekend? That’s the claim in the Telegraph, after Scarlett’s production of Frankenstein was axed by the Royal Danish Theatre. Russian ballet star Alexei Ratmansky said, “After allegations of inappropriate behaviour less than two years ago, companies that he worked for removed his ballets from the rep and cancelled all his future contracts. I did hear one director saying: ‘I can’t programme his ballets, I’ll be eaten alive.’ Liam knew he [had] no future as a choreographer. That killed him. It should not have happened. This cancel culture is killing.” Writing in the Spectator Graham Watts argues that “our institutions appear little more interested in due process than a medieval court in the dunking of a witch. Western society is now riven with a cancel culture that has its risk-averse meter set to max.”

Carla Bruni has blasted the rise of cancel culture, saying, “Little by little and without warning, do-gooders and censorship have taken control. Obsessed by their image of upholders of morality, a whole load of people without culture, without experience and without courage are trying to impose their narrow-minded ideas on us. Their sterile, uniform and puerile ideas are seeking to invade humanity.”

Dan Hannan, this time writing in the Express, says people have “had enough” of cancel culture and it is a “debilitating problem” in the British education system. While Dan Kovalik bemoans that the left once fought for the right to free speech, only for “self-proclaimed progressives [to] cheer on the censorship of their political opponents”. He sets out the left-wing case against censorship and cancel culture in Spiked.

The food critic Jonathan Meades took a stand for “cultural appropriation” in food and literature alike, saying in an interview that banning the mixing of cultures was “an order to shut down the imagination”.

Noel Yaxley asks where the late Christopher Hitchens would have stood on the culture war. While we can’t know for sure where he’d stand on every issue, there was no doubting his commitment to free speech, Yaxley writes.

Do you need to be “woke-washed”?

According to the Financial Times people are paying up to $150,000 a month to purge their online profile and social media pages of anything remotely embarrassing. This “woke-washing” is one answer to cancel culture, but why not stand-up for free speech instead? (With membership of the FSU starting from £2.49 a month it’s certainly a lot cheaper).

Petition: Amend employment law to protect employees’ right to free-speech

A new petition has been launched calling on the Government to amend employment law to protect free speech for employees beyond the workplace. A huge amount of our case work involves helping people facing disciplinary action or dismissal for things they’ve said outside of work, often on their own personal social media accounts.

What did the Ancient Greeks understand by ‘free speech’?

Two concepts of free speech existed in Ancient Greece, writes Professor James Kierstead in Antigone, a new online Classics magazine. The first, isēgoriā, is “equality of public speech”. The second, parrhēsiā, is “the license to say whatever you want”. The no-platformers interpret isēgoriā to mean that marginalised or minority groups must be afforded equal space in public forums, while free speech campaigners argue primarily for parrhēsiā.

Kierstead argues that it is “parrhēsiā that we will ultimately need to defend if we want to keep free speech alive, within the academy and in society as a whole”. He says that while “universities should look to encourage civility as a soft norm”, they must also “protect free speech via hard rules (for example, against scholars being sacked for ordinary political expression)”. This is a duty the Free Speech Union is constantly reminding universities to uphold.

Pandemic curbs on free speech

The Washington Post reports on the vast violations of free speech that have taken place globally since the beginning of the pandemic. Citing research from Human Rights Watch and PEN America, the Post notes that 83 governments have violated the rights of their citizens to “free speech and peaceful assembly”, while in 2020 “at least 273 writers, academics and public intellectuals in 35 countries were in prison or unjustly held in detention in connection with their writing, their work or related activism.”

Big Tech censorship

Facebook and Twitter have been implicated in another case of censorship, this time for suppressing revelations about a co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

Following the latest Dawkins cancellation, Michael Deacon in the Telegraph compares Twitter to a Chinese app which lets people report citizens who have expressed “mistaken opinions”.

While in the Times a call is made to get MPs off Twitter to cool down the culture war: “It does not help that politicians seem unable to distinguish between abuse and disagreement… while some MPs have suffered abhorrent abuse it is also true that citizens are mostly just disagreeing.”

“Woke weaning” captures US schools

Meanwhile a “sledgehammer approach to race and equality” has left parents in the US scared to question the woke gobbledegook their children are being taught in school. “Imagine your little boy coming home from school and announcing that he is ‘bad’ because he is white, ‘and that makes him racist and an oppressor’. Imagine a school where white teachers are told, as part of their strident Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) programme, that they have been guilty of ‘spirit-murdering’ black children.” Of course, those of you with children of school age – in the UK as well as the United States – won’t have to imagine it.

Quote of the week

“Reason requires that a diverse range of ideas be expressed and debated openly, including ones that some people find unfamiliar or uncomfortable. To demonize a writer rather than address the writer’s arguments is a confession that one has no rational response to them.”

 – Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, protesting against the AHA’s cancellation of Richard Dawkins.

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Best wishes,

Benjamin Jones

Case Officer