Weekly news round-up

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

The FSU Writers’ Advisory Council – a call for authors!

Since the FSU launched in February 2020, a growing number of authors have come to us for advice and support – Gillian Philip, Julie Burchill, Helen Joyce, Allison Pearson, Holly Lawford-Smith – and over 250 authors have joined as members. It has become increasingly clear to us that freedom of expression is under severe pressure within the literary world, with publishers and literary agents often failing to defend their authors when their speech rights come under attack. 

Some of the threats our writer members have flagged up include: 

  • Publishers including morality clauses in contracts.
  • Sensitivity readers vetting manuscripts.
  • Editors removing content to avoid giving offense (e.g., ‘cultural appropriation’).
  • Bookshops refusing to stock books or, if they do, their employees refusing to display them properly.
  • Authors being no-platformed from speaking events, such as literary festivals, at the behest of other authors, sponsors or venue staff.

These issues are of great concern to the FSU, and not just because they directly affect our writer members. The freedom of authors to express themselves and of people to read their work without interference or mediation by self-appointed censors is a fundamental human right.  

To make sure we’re able to give these issues a proper airing in the public square – and that the speech rights of our writer members and authors more generally are protected – we have established a specialist Writers’ Advisory Council (which we will unveil on Sunday). Our hope is that this will lend the FSU’s voice authority when it speaks out in defence of freedom of expression and comes to the defence of beleaguered authors. 

To better support our writer members, the FSU will:

  • Ensure that a member of our case team specialises in protecting them from the kinds of censorship listed above and is always available at the end of the phone.
  • Cultivate good working relationships with third party providers of specialist advice to authors on issues such as contracts, tax and insurance.

All of these services will be provided either pro bono or at a below market rate to our writer members. In addition, any writers who join the FSU will have access to all the usual benefits, such as:

  • Invitations to members-only events with people like Kathleen Stock, Jack Dee, Andrew Doyle, Graham Linehan and Helen Joyce.
  • Discounted tickets to parties, conferences, and comedy nights.
  • FSU weekly and monthly newsletters.
  • Individually tailored advice from our two full-time case officers, two full-time lawyers and specialist media advisors.

As with our existing members, from 2023 writer members will also have access to paywalled content on our website, such as:

  • FSU authored news articles, videos, and podcasts.
  • FAQs on what to do if you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do, such as declare your gender pronouns in the workplace or take an unconscious bias training course.
  • Research and briefings on where free speech needs to be better protected in the UK.

We hope that as many authors as possible will join the FSU, whether to protect themselves, to defend their peers or to build a public voice capable of putting the case for freedom of expression as robustly as possible. If you know of any friends or family that might be interested in our offer, please do share this news with them.

Office for Students warns universities to stop using equality laws to restrict free speech

Universities must stop using equality laws as an excuse to restrict free speech, the Office for Students has warned (Guardian, Mail, Telegraph, Times Higher).

In a research note published this week – Freedom to question, challenge and debate – the higher education regulator for England reminded universities that although they have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination, harassment, and victimisation on the basis of various protected characteristics (e.g. age, disability, religion, sex, gender reassignment and sexual orientation), nevertheless, policies which promote a particular protected characteristic “to the detriment of others”, may “amount to unlawful discrimination” and could have the effect of “curtailing” freedom of expression.

The organisation’s CEO, Susan Lapworth, said that the new research note had been drawn up by the regulator to highlight the “importance of universities really understanding the nature of that free speech duty, alongside their equality duties”. She added: “Too often we see universities not properly understanding that legal framing, and perhaps leaning more fully into the equality duties than we think that the law supports, and we are concerned that that is acting to curtail free speech in some circumstances.” (Guardian).

Although it hasn’t received much media attention, there’s another interesting insight into the approach the OfS wants to see universities adopt that’s buried deep in the details of this research note. As per Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, universities are currently required to issue and keep up to date a free speech ‘code of practice’. That sounds great, but in practice the legislation only requires that a code set out the procedures that must be followed in connection with the organisation of meetings or other activities taking place on a university’s premises. On page four of the OfS’s research note, however, the regulator expresses its “view” that from now on “a free speech code should go a lot further than that… [t]his means we would expect a university’s free speech code to include broader statements about free speech and academic freedom, and to extend to activities such as teaching and curriculum content”. That‘s good news.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – the return of Clause 4?

Last week, Peers voted to scrap Clause 4 of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which would have created a statutory tort to enable academics and students to sue universities and students’ unions for compensation if they’d breached their new duties to protect free speech on campus, as set out in the Bill (TelegraphTimes Higher). As we said at the time, we were unhappy about that. Our position is that the new statutory tort is what gives the legislation’s new free speech duties teeth, and if that’s removed, the Bill is essentially a dead letter. However, we also said that there were grounds for optimism. As Toby pointed out to the Telegraph, “The Government amended the Bill to defang the statutory tort in the hope of winning round its critics in the Lords. Plainly, that hasn’t worked, so I very much hope the Government will restore the statutory tort in its original form when the Bill returns to the Commons.”

As things stand, that looks unlikely to happen. Speaking at an Office for Students (OfS) event on Thursday afternoon, Claire Coutinho, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education, whose brief includes freedom of speech, suggested that the government will now dig its heels in over Clause 4. She said: “We remain resolute that people will have the right to go to court if their complaint cannot be resolved through other routes.” Unfortunately, however, she said the right to sue should be a last resort – the ‘compromise’ the Government proposed but which the Lords rejected. We will be lobbying her to restore the tort as it originally appeared in the Bill and not in a neutered form. Although a date has not yet formally been set for MPs to consider the changes the Lords made to the bill earlier this month, Ms Coutinho did also let slip that the government expected the bill to receive royal assent “early in the new year”. 

Anglican Priest too “dangerous” to be given a platform in the House of Commons

Writing in the Daily Express, the former Home Secretary Anne Widdicombe gave an update on the recent case of Lynda Rose, one of the first women to be both deaconed and priested in the Anglican church, who was recently no-platformed by a Labour MP at an event in the House of Commons.

Lynda Rose is the CEO of Voice for Justice UK and also serves as Convenor of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group, a non-aligned Parliamentary research group. Back in November, Anne Widdicombe reported how Lynda had been invited to speak at a conference at Parliament on the topic, “Ending violence against women and girls: progress and remaining challenges.” The event was organised by the Women’s Federation for World Peace UK (WFWP) and was chaired by Labour MP, Paulette Hamilton.

So far, so jolly you might think. But a few days before the event was due to take place, Lynda was telephoned by a member of the WFWP to say that Ms Hamilton had told them to withdraw the invitation, or she would cancel the event. The reason? Rev. Rose holds traditional Christian views on LGBT matters. As Lynda pointed out at the time, the last thing on her mind when speaking on domestic abuse would have been LGBT matters. No matter. Ms Hamilton considered Rose’s views to be “dangerous”, and that was that. As Anne pointed out, in the world according to the Honourable Member for Birmingham, Erlington if you hold particular views on any one thing “you can be comprehensively prevented from expressing views on anything else by those who have taken exception” (Daily Express).

The “real outrage” in all of this, for Anne Widdicombe, is that a woman priest had been no-platformed for her Christian views in the Houses of Parliament where democracy is supposedly sacrosanct.

Or had she? In her latest column, Anne reveals that one of her readers had been so incensed by news of Lynda’s no-platforming that she’d written to Ms Hamilton and had now forwarded her a copy of the “gobsmacking” reply she’d received from the MP’s aide. Anne summarises the contents of this exculpatory email as follows: “Lynda Rose had been invited by the organisers of the conference, the aide explained, but they had not consulted Ms Hamilton, so therefore the invitation was an error, and therefore because it was an error it had never been issued at all, and therefore Lynda was not no-platformed because she had never had a platform.” Cancel culture, what cancel culture?

Joe Kelly fundraiser – show your support!

We know this is a tough case and not all our members will support us. But if you do, please consider donating to the Crowdfunder for Joe Kelly. With about a week to go until the campaign closes, we really need one final push from members and supporters to help reach our funding target and get this important legal case up and running. The link to find out more about the case and pledge your support is here. (We’re very close to meeting our stretch target.)

Joe Kelly was convicted and sentenced in Scotland for contravening the Communications Act 2003, section 127(1)(b), which makes it a criminal offence to make an electronic post which is “grossly offensive”. Despite showing remorse – even confessing that this was one of the most stupid things he’d ever done in his life – and despite his counsel’s attempt to defend his right to free speech (which includes, as Lord Sedley stated, the “heretical, unwelcome and provocative”), Scotland’s prosecution service decided to throw the book at Joe, convicting and then sentencing him to a community payback order.

Having had his appeal denied by the Scottish Courts and having been labelled an “example case” to deter others from “pressing the blue button” and posting allegedly offensive content, Joe is now seeking to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – and the FSU is supporting him.

The case Joe’s counsel will make focuses on ensuring this “deterrence” (i.e., “chilling effect”) on free expression does not materialise. It will also ensure Scotland is not left behind as the only country in the UK in which it’s illegal to say something “grossly offensive”, which it will be if the Communications Act is repealed in the rest of the UK.

Statements made by means of a public telecommunications system, like Kelly’s tweet, should not need to have artistic or political meaning for them be protected by the right to free speech laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights. If applied in the way that the Sheriff did in Kelly’s case, the term “grossly offensive” is far too vague and his conviction will indeed have a chilling effect – a person’s right to freedom of speech should not be subject to interference on this basis.

Any donations made are to fund the legal expenses associated with preparing an application to the European Court of Human Rights. If permission to hear the case in Strasbourg is granted, we hope the remainder of the case will be funded by the Court’s own system of legal aid. You can pledge your support 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 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