Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week.

The FSU Christmas Special – a festive comedy extravaganza!

With little more than a week to go until the FSU’s live Christmas Comedy Special on Monday 12th December, it looks like being a sell-out event. So if you’d like to attend, please do round up your friends and family today – you can book tickets here. The event takes place at the Backyard Comedy Club, Bethnal Green, London from 7pm onwards. Comedy legend Bobby Davro will be our Master of Ceremonies for the evening, and he’ll be joined on stage by stand-up comedian and GB News presenter Leo Kearse, Comedy Unleashed favourite Mary Bourke, and comedian and Radio 4 ‘personality’ Simon Evans.

The FSU’s Christmas Review – register for the event here!

If you can’t make it to London for the Comedy Special, not to worry – you can join us online on Tuesday 13th December for our annual Christmas Review. The Review is a great opportunity for FSU staff and members to vote for 2022’s free speech heroes and villains and to discuss the year’s free speech ‘highs’, as well as its ‘lows’. Please note that this event starts slightly earlier than usual, at 6pm, so as not to clash with the World Cup semi-final at 7pm which – you never know – England might be in. You can register for the event by clicking here.

FSU’s New Year Regional Speakeasies announced — book your tickets here!

The FSU is kicking off 2023 with a new series of Regional Speakeasies around the country. Each event will include an address from a senior member of FSU staff on the topic, ‘Why Free Speech is Worth Fighting For.’ The Regional Speakeasies are a great chance to find out why we’re all so passionate about defending free speech, and to hear about the many ways our work is having an impact across various fronts, from case work and campaigning to parliamentary lobbying and policy research. They also provide an important opportunity for us to thank members in person for their continued support. There will, of course, be plenty of time for discussion, as well as socialising with fellow free speech supporters. All event details will be listed here later in the week. Doors open at 7pm, and we kick things off at 7.30pm.

Get your FSU T-shirts in time for Christmas

Due to unprecedented demand, we’ve re-stocked our FSU-themed T-shirts – again! Featuring Bob Moran’s fabulous ‘Orwell Surprised’ cartoon, the garments are available for only £20 (including first class UK postage). Show your support for free speech while helping us to raise funds to continue what we do best. If you order quickly, your purchase should arrive in time to make the perfect Christmas gift. Click here to access our sales page.

Where did ‘wokeness’ come from?

The sociologist and writer Noah Carl sat down recently with Dr Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College and an FSU Advisory Council member to record an episode of his excellent podcast ‘Noah’s Newsletter’. It’s well worth a listen – they discuss the origins of ‘wokeness’, whether cancel culture is really that new, the extent to which Britain’s experience of ‘woke’ is different from the rest of Europe, and whether woke activism is here to stay. The podcast is here.

Public discourse on Twitter is not a matter for the police, says Chief Constable

Public discourse sometimes involves people knocking lumps out of each other on Twitter, and in a democracy that shouldn’t be a matter for the police – back-to-basics Chief Constable Stephen Watson has told the Times that officers need to avoid the “fluff and nonsense” and get on with doing their job: catching criminals while remaining professional, impartial and apolitical.

Stephen Watson, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, was brought in to overhaul the force after it was put into special measures for failing to record 80,100 crimes reported to it between July 1st 2019 and June 30th 2020, poor responses to vulnerable victims and huge emergency call backlogs (Metro).

Mr Watson quickly brought the force – one of England’s biggest – out of special measures, insisting that officers attend every burglary and callout that mattered to the public, such as criminal damage and antisocial behaviour. He has also enforced stricter uniform standards, ordering officers to improve their public image by ironing uniforms, polishing boots, hiding tattoos, shaving and tying up long hair (Times).

Since the Chief Constable took over, the time taken to answer 999 calls has fallen sharply (from an average of one minute 22 seconds to seven seconds), the number of suspects charged is up 42% and the force is having to build more custody suites to cope with 28,000 more arrests this year.

There have been several recent incidents in which police have been criticised for their conduct online. Sussex police was condemned by Home Secretary Suella Braverman in September after the force leapt to the defence of a ‘female identifying’ paedophile who had been misgendered on social media (Spiked). Several chief constables have also defended their officers’ right to “take the knee” for the political organisation Black Lives Matter (Mail), and officers have been criticised for being seen to attend LGBTQ pride events but not crime scenes (BBCNewsLetterSpiked).

Watson, who attributes his success to a “back-to-basics approach” and a return to traditional policing, said his approach was not about ignoring complexity but that it was only by tackling the basics properly that police could get “upstream” of difficult issues.

Ministers are reportedly now studying Mr Watson’s example and want to see Greater Manchester’s success replicated across other forces (Telegraph). Suella Braverman also recently described Watson as “a superb leader”, urging other chiefs to “pay close attention” to his methods, including how he “rejects woke policing and [has] embraced a back-to-basics approach” (Mail).

Together event on the risks to freedom in a digital society – FSU members discount available!

The campaign group #Together is hosting an event next week that will explore the threat posed to freedom of speech, expression and belief as western, liberal democracies become increasingly reliant on digital technologies. ‘What, no cash?! Digital ID, Central Bank Digital Currencies and Freedom’ takes place on Wednesday 7th December at Conway Hall, London from 7:30pm. Speakers include FSU General Secretary Toby Young, #Together’s co-founder, Alan Miller, and Cameron Parry, the founder and CEO of Tally Money, a new monetary system using physical gold as digital currency. The FSU has been able to secure a 25% discount for members wishing to attend this event – the link to book tickets is here and the promo code is ‘FREESPEECH’.

US academics urge university leaders to do more to protect academic freedom – sign the petition!

The number of academics targeted by cancel culture mobs in US universities has risen alarmingly since 2015, according to a database of incidents compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). According to FIRE’s most recent report, 537 incidents involving “efforts to investigate, penalize or otherwise professionally sanction a scholar for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech” were recorded between 2015 and 2021, and more than 60% of those incidents resulted in some form of sanction being applied, including 28 formal investigations, 18 suspensions, and 14 dismissals. Over one-third of the incidents occurred due to the nature of an academic’s research or teaching practices.

FIRE’s dataset is just one of the many methodological indicators now pointing to a rapid decline in academic freedom and freedom of speech in the US higher education system. Researchers whose findings challenge dominant narratives find it increasingly hard to get published, funded, hired, or promoted. Employment, promotion, and funding are increasingly subject to implicit or explicit political litmus tests, including approval from bureaucrats seeking to impose a social agenda such as specific views of social justice or diversity, equity and inclusion (or ‘DEI’) principles. Activism is replacing inquiry and debate. An increasing number of simple facts and ideas cannot even be mentioned without risk of retribution. And so on and so forth.

It’s for these reasons that a group of US-based academics have now written an open letter calling on all universities, academic associations, journals, and national academies to adopt the “Chicago Trifecta”, consisting of the Chicago Principles of free speech, the Kalven Report requirement for institutional neutrality on political and social matters, and the Shils report making academic contribution the sole basis for hiring and promotion. The signatories are also urging university leaders to promote and institutionalise free speech and academic freedom. As they point out, “Freedom comes with a culture of responsibility, but responsibilities are better enforced by social norms than by extensive rules enforced by non-academic bureaucrats.”

If you’re a higher education practitioner – whether US or UK based – and you’d like to add your name to the petition (or sign anonymously, including only the details of your institutional affiliation), then you can do so by clicking here.   

UK Government waters down Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Following the letter the FSU pulled together last week urging the Education Secretary not to neuter the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which was signed by over 50 academics, the Government has tabled an amendment to the Bill in the Lords seeking to strike a compromise with the Bill’s critics over the creation of a new statutory tort that will enable students and academics to take their university to court if they believe it has breached their free speech rights.

Our letter urged the Government not to ditch the tort, which we argued was an important enforcement mechanism if higher education providers are going to take their new free speech duties, as set out in the Bill, seriously. The Government is not planning to do that, but its amendment would make court action a last resort, forcing aggrieved students and academics to exhaust civil complaints procedures first.

We’re profoundly unhappy with this. If the government amends the Bill so students and academics are only able to take their universities to the county court for breaching their free speech duties after exhausting every other avenue it will neuter it. One of the things the Bill will do is create a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom role in the Office for Students who will have the power to investigate complaints, which is welcome, but complaining to him or her may be no more effective than complaining to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which students can do already. The amendment makes the enforcement of the new free speech duties in the Bill contingent on who is appointed to that new role, and we have no guarantee it will be someone who cares about free speech and not some lackey of the higher education sector. That’s a risk under the current government, but it’s a racing certainty under a Labour government.

All regulatory bodies are susceptible to capture by the sector they’re supposed to be regulating and that’s particularly true of higher education. The only way to make sure universities uphold the new free speech duties in the Bill is to give aggrieved parties the option of suing them in the county court. Without that, this Bill will make no more difference that the Education (No.2) Act 1986. That Act imposed a legal duty on universities to uphold free speech, but it’s never been taken seriously by the sector because there was no accompanying enforcement mechanism. The new statutory tort is what gave the new free speech duties teeth. If that’s going to be reduced to a weapon of last resort, the Bill is a dead letter.

In a piece about the Government’s climbdown in the Telegraph, Professor Jo Phoenix, who was no-platformed by Essex University, said: “To now think that I would have to go through a lengthy complaints process, well let’s just say that this process is an excellent way that university managers can kick the problem in our universities into the long grass.”

The FSU will shortly publish a pro forma email that members and supporters can send to their MPs urging them to tell the Government not to dilute this important Bill.

Update on our petition urging Elon Musk to stop banning gender critical voices on Twitter

Last week we started a petition urging Elon Musk to restore the accounts of people expressing gender critical views on Twitter, e.g., the view that sex is biological and immutable and women can’t have penises. Since then, Elon Musk has announced that he intends to grant an Amnesty to all suspended/banned accounts provided they have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam” (Telegraph).

That’s encouraging, although we’re asking members and supporters to continue to sign the petition until we see evidence that Twitter is in fact welcoming back gender critical commentators like, for instance, women’s rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen (@thePosieParker), comedy writer Graham Linehan (@glinner), intersex advocate Claire Graham (@MRKHvoice), barrister Dennis Kavanagh (@jebadoo2), journalist Miranda Yardley (@terrorizerMIR) and philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith (@aytchellesse).

There’s another reason it’s vitally important to continue to sign our petition. We would like Twitter to change its policy on ‘hateful conduct’ so expressing gender critical views or misgendering or deadnaming a trans person is not classed as ‘hateful’. If that doesn’t change, some of the reinstated gender critical accounts will end up being suspended/banned again in short order.

Please sign the petition and help persuade Twitter’s new owner to lift the ban on gender critical voices and reconsider the company’s entire approach to gender critical beliefs. You can find the petition 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. 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