Weekly news round-up

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

Christmas Review

Those members who were unable to join the online Christmas Review last week can now watch it on our YouTube channel here (we’ve also posted some shorter clips on our Twitter page here, here and here). The FSU’s staff nominated their free speech heroes and zeros of the year and members then cast their votes. Candidates for heroes included Salman Rushdie, Elon Musk, the College of Policing, JK Rowling and her fellow “outspoken women of TERF island”.

Twitter petition

Spoiler alert! The free speech hero of 2022 – by popular acclaim – is Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla who bought Twitter for $44 billion earlier this year. He spent way over the odds for the company – in part, at least, so he could stop the social media platform censoring people who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy on subjects like the Covid-19 vaccines, climate change and election fraud. Thanks to Musk’s release of the Twitter Files, we now know the extent of that censorship – far greater than most of us ever imagined.

Last month, we started a petition urging Twitter’s new CEO to stop banning gender critical voices. He hasn’t yet restored all the accounts we named in the petition – so please do sign it if you haven’t already. But Wednesday brought the news that one of the most prominent gender critical feminists – Kellie-Jay Keen (@thePosieParker) – has had her Twitter account restored, and last night we learned that Graham Linehan had also had his account reinstated. A nice little victory to end the year with.

Jeremy Clarkson targeted for cancellation

The reaction to Jeremy Clarkson’s Sun column about Meghan Markle has been so over-the-top, it’s almost comical. The most ridiculous I’ve seen so far was that of Chris Packham, presenter of Springwatch and a long-standing opponent of Clarkson’s on everything from driven shooting to farming. He tweeted: “It’s hate crime, pure and simple. If there were any sort of justice there would be laws that would jail him. And shut down the publisher. Is this the country we want to live in? Is this what we should tolerate? We must ask ourselves – where is this leading? Nowhere good.”

Does Packham really believe that Britain would be a better place if newspaper columnists could be imprisoned (and their newspapers shut down) for saying something offensive? Maybe he does.

I can’t link to the column in question because Clarkson has asked the Sun to take it down (which I think is a mistake). But it hardly matters because it’s been reproduced everywhere, particularly by those who claim that the words Clarkson used are likely to inspire violence against women and girls. (If they’re really so dangerous, why keep repeating them?) Here’s the section that has caused all the controversy:

I hate her. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level.

At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, “Shame!” and throw lumps of excrement at her.

This is an obvious reference to the scene in Game of Thrones in which Cersei is forced to do a ‘walk of atonement’ by the High Sparrow, but that was ignored by all Clarkson’s critics who reacted as if he had dredged up with this particular form of ritual humiliation from deep in his ‘misogynistic’ psyche. (Apart from David Baddiel, who got the reference but condemned Clarkson anyway on the grounds that the original scene was itself a “violent misogynistic fantasy”.)

The number of people who interpreted Clarkson’s words, not as an attack on Meghan, but on all women, is quite something. When a female columnist fantasises about violence being inflicted on a man – Caitlin Moran once tweeted she hoped Germaine Greer would cut me in half with a sword – no one accuses them of misandry. But here’s the ex-Labour spin doctor Ayesha Hazarika giving her view on Clarkson’s column: “Many of us this week are reflecting on how misogyny has infected society and why violence against women is at such a frightening level.” That was also the view of Nicola Sturgeon, who described the column as “deeply misogynistic” – this was after a laughable bit of throat clearing in which the First Minister said she was a “passionate believer in free speech”! (Is this the same woman whose government passed the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act last year?)

And it seems many members of the public shared their disgust. According to the Guardian, the Independent Press Standards Regulator has received a record number of complaints about the column – more than the combined total it received in 2021. (The number now exceeds 20,000.)

Even Clarkson’s own daughter Emily condemned him, issuing the following statement on her Instagram account:

My views are and have always been clear when it comes to misogyny, bullying and the treatment of women by the media.

I want to make it very clear that I stand against everything that my dad wrote about Meghan Markle and I remain standing in support of those that are targeted with online hatred.

That had the whiff of Mao’s China about it, but it didn’t stop numerous commentators praising her. Carol Vorderman, for instance, described Emily’s denunciation of her father as “wonderful” and went on to upbraid Clarkson for writing such a vile thing about “any woman”. Vorderman said in a follow-up tweet that she’d received “lots of abuse” about her condemnation of Clarkson, but didn’t mind because witnessing his demise – and seeing the ejaculations of anyone foolish enough to defend him – was “like watching the last death throes of the dinosaur age”. (Isn’t that a bit ageist?)

Incidentally, Vorderman quote-tweeted a letter to the Chief Executive of ITV signed by 60 MPs, including some Conservatives, urging her to sack him as presenter of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? They, too, didn’t get the Game of Thrones reference – or pretended not to so they could work themselves up into even more of a lather. “Expressing a scatological, misogynistic fantasy that Meghan Markle might be assaulted with faeces is an insight into a disturbed mind, openly expressing violent hate speech,” wrote the letter’s author, SNP MP John Nicholson. He claimed he had “consistently defended freedom of the press” – oh really? – but Clarkson had “crossed a line”.

The pile-on against the “old fart” is ironic, given that the people leading the charge claim to be concerned about the psychological trauma his words have caused Meghan. What about the psychological impact on Clarkson of being the latest victim of two minutes hate? It’s almost as if his critics are demanding that he should be stripped naked and paraded through the streets of every town in Britain while he’s pelted with excrement for daring to suggest that Meghan should be stripped naked and… etc., etc.

Needless to say, far from being traumatised, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will be rubbing their hands with glee over this row because it’s shifted public opinion back in their favour after the poor reception given to their Neflix ‘documentary’. Here, at last, is the ‘evidence’ they’ve been desperately searching for that the racist British tabloids turned on Meghan because, to quote John Nicholson’s letter, she’s “the only person of colour in the Royal Family”.

How has Clarkson responded to all this performative outrage and opportunistic virtue-signalling? Alas, he has issued (sort of) an apology:

In a column I wrote about Meghan, I made a clumsy reference to a scene in Game of Thrones and this has gone down badly with a great many people. I’m horrified to have caused so much hurt and I shall be more careful in future.

Oh Jeremy! You should have reached out to the Free Speech Union, where we would have told you that apologising rarely succeeds in drawing a line under attempts to cancel you. On the contrary, it emboldens the mob who sense weakness and move in for the kill. When I stepped down from the Office for Students in 2018 and apologised for various sophomoric remarks I’d made on Twitter, the Twitchfork mob immediately tried to get me fired from all my other jobs and I ended up having to step down from five positions. And so it has proved to be in Clarkson’s case, with campaigns launched now to have him fired by Amazon, where he presents Grand Tour and Clarkson’s Farm, and various woke activist groups writing to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police urging him to “take action” against the miscreant. Thankfully, Sir Mark Rowley has said he has no intention of doing so.

What’s my view of Clarkson’s column? Well, I wouldn’t have written those words myself, not least because – to paraphrase Ross Clark in the Telegraph – I wouldn’t have wanted to give “the entire liberal-Left establishment” an excuse to launch yet another attack on the “Right-wing press” or lend any credibility to Meghan’s ludicrous attempts to smear the British tabloids as racist. I think I also would have recognised that it’s a little tone deaf to confess to fantasising about inflicting a medieval punishment on a prominent female public figure, given the current campaign to criminalise ‘misogyny’. Such a law would pose a major threat to free speech because, among other things, it would almost certainly make it a criminal offence to say something ‘hateful’ against transwomen, which, as we know, includes saying you don’t think they’re women.

Should it be against the law to write what Clarkson wrote? Absolutely not. Should he lose his gigs on ITV and Amazon? Of course not. Should he be sacked by the Sun? No. I’ve got nothing against people condemning Clarkson on Twitter and elsewhere – they’re as entitled to exercise their free speech as he is. But trying to get someone fired for saying something you find offensive – or, more accurately, pretend to find offensive – goes beyond vigorous debate and becomes cancel culture. That’s crossing a line, John Nicholson.

Whenever anyone says they support free speech but draw the line at hate speech, the six million dollar question is: Who gets to decide what hate speech is? In today’s political climate, accusing the Royal Family of being a racist institution isn’t hate speech – even though it’s clearly intended to stir up hatred against King Charles et al – but saying you would like to strip the accuser naked, parade her through the streets of every town in Britain… etc. is the secular equivalent of blasphemy. Why? How did that become the rule? Because Chris Packham, Ayesha Hazarika and Carol Vorderman say so?

To underline just how subjective the concept of ‘hate speech’ is, the same people who’ve condemned Clarkson never object when equally nasty things are said about Tories by members of their own tribe. I don’t recall David Baddiel piping up when Jo Brand joked about throwing battery acid in Nigel Farage’s face or Carol Vorderman reaching for the smelling salts when Angela Rayner referred to “all Tories” as “scum”. The author Sir Philip Pullman described Clarkson’s column as “poison”, yet three years ago he said: “When I hear the name ‘Boris Johnson’, for some reason the words ‘rope’ and ‘nearest lamp-post’ come to mind as well.” (See Ross Clark’s great piece on this hypocrisy in the Mail.)

So, to be clear, the change to the law Clarkson’s critics are advocating would make it a criminal offence to say something ‘offensive’ about people on the same political side as them, but not about their political opponents. Apart from being illiberal, isn’t that a little short-sighted? Yes, they’re in the ascendancy now, but what if the fashion changes and their equivalents in 25 years’ time regard their speech as hateful? What principle will they be able to appeal to to protect their free speech, given that they’ve campaigned to criminalise the speech of their ideological enemies?

As Ira Glasser, the ex-head of the ACLU said:

Speech restrictions are like poison gas. You see a bad speaker out there. And you don’t want to listen to him or her anymore. So you get this poison gas and say, “I’m going to spray him with it.” And then the wind shifts. And pretty soon the gas blows back on you.

FAQs about FoIs

We’ve published a new set of FAQs, this time about how to submit a Freedom of Information request. The Freedom of Information Act has become a powerful tool for civil liberties groups like Big Brother Watch, but there are various pitfalls you should avoid if you’re thinking of submitting an FoI. For instance, if your request is too open-ended it can be turned down on the grounds that it would be too expensive to comply with. Carrie Clark, the FSU’s Research Officer, has produced this handy guide to maximise your chances of getting a response.

The FSU Writers’ Advisory Council

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 are protected, as well as the rights of authors more generally – we have established a specialist Writers’ Advisory Council that boasts a number of prominent authors, publishers and literary agents, including Julie Bindel, Jack Dee, Andrew Doyle, Matthew Hamilton, Alex Harwood, Helen Joyce, Bel Mooney, George Owers, Anna Pasternak, Gillian Philip, Andrew Roberts and Lionel Shriver. 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 such services to be provided either pro bono or at 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.

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. (To see the kind of help we can provide to writers, see this short testimonial from Holly Lawford-Smith.) If you know of anyone that might be interested in this offer, please do share this news with them – or, better yet, buy them the gift of FSU membership for Christmas (see below).

Regional Speakeasies

We will be kicking off 2023 with a new series of Regional Speakeasies around the UK. The events – in Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Brighton – will be addressed by a senior member of Free Speech Union staff to discuss why free speech is worth fighting for. This is a chance to find out why the individuals involved in FSU are so passionate about defending free speech and how our work is developing across many different fronts, from case work to campaigns. It is also an opportunity for us to thank members in person for their continued support, as well as introduce others to the work we do and encourage them to join. There will, of course, be plenty of time for socialising with fellow free speech supporters.

Speakeasies are free for FSU members. We encourage you to invite non-members who might be interested in finding out more about what we do. Please book your places as soon as possible via our Events page.

Cambridge dictionary includes new definition of ‘woman’

The Cambridge Dictionary has updated its definition of ‘woman’ to include anyone who “identifies as female” regardless of their sex at birth (Independent, LBC, Mail, Times). As well as “an adult female person”, the online dictionary now includes a supplementary definition: “An adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.” Examples of usage given include: “Mary is a woman who was assigned male at birth” and “she was the first trans woman elected to a national office”.

Explaining the incorporation of this definition, a spokesman for the Cambridge Dictionary said: “Our dictionaries are compiled by analysing a large corpus of English texts (over two billion words in total) taken from all areas of writing and publishing… [and]… we regularly update our dictionary to reflect changes in how English is used, based on analysis of data from this corpus.” (Telegraph)

Speaking to the Mail, I said I was disappointed to see identity politics creeping into the work of dictionary compilers, and suspected that this new definition “has been introduced as a result of lobbying by political activists, a slippery slope that no dictionary should go down”. (I reiterated that argument on GB News.)

Naomi Firsht makes a similar point in UnHerd. “Of course,” she concedes, “language evolves and so dictionaries must update words and meanings once a new term has entered popular usage.” But even so, “are we really expected to believe that lexicographers at Cambridge Dictionary think the majority of English-speakers would agree to and use their new definition?”

Criticisms of this kind are only half right, says Charles Moore (Telegraph). The key factor for lexicographers is not always popular usage, but current usage — which, in this case, is born of legal reality. The fact is that ever since the Gender Recognition Act passed onto the statute books in 2004, trans people can be, by law, the gender they say they have become by providing a relevant medical diagnosis, regardless of what it says on their birth certificate.

That’s why the dictionary’s supplementary definition has that coy, almost Dickensian expression “though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”, says Moore. Some people might think – and Lord Moore readily acknowledges that he might well agree with them – “that what has happened is an affront to biological fact and linguistic truth”. But the Cambridge Dictionary “is only doing its duty if it records a meaning which the law imposes”.

Maybe so, but Brendan O’Neill was quick to spot the political ramifications of this ostensibly technical, lexicographic intervention (Spiked). The fact is that ‘woman’ has become one of the most problematic, socially contested words of our times. So when the Cambridge Dictionary decides to give the word a supplementary, transgender friendly definition, it is not simply “reflecting meaning imposed by the law”, as Charles Moore puts it, but also, and at the same time, taking sides in an ongoing and deeply divisive debate regarding the social, political and cultural importance of the biological reality of sex.

It’s in this context that Naomi Firsht suggests the dictionary’s supplementary definition constitutes “the latest in a long series of examples that chip away at what it means to be a woman and often erasing women’s sex class in the process”. Back in July, for instance, Merriam-Webster also added a supplementary definition of “female” as “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male”. And in many public sector settings today, dehumanising terms like “menstruators”, “pregnant people”, “chest feeders” and “cervix-havers” are being used to re-classify biological women as just one type of incumbent of that now much wider category ‘woman’.

The problem with these progressive attempts to broaden the concept of ‘woman’ to include trans woman, Naomi says, is that they are effectively denying women the language they need to campaign for their own sex-based rights. More specifically, if organisations and institutions are moving towards describing women in this way, then it will become even harder to maintain a legal definition of the word that allows for necessary female single-sex spaces, such as women’s refuges, changing rooms and prisons. She has a point – one only has to look at the backlash JK Rowling has faced for daring to launch a women-only support centre for victims of sexual abuse in Edinburgh to see how contentious this issue is becoming (Pink News, Independent, UnHerd)

And what about the political campaigning necessary to maintain the current legal definition of ‘woman’? It has, for instance, become an act of feminist defiance to utter the old dictionary definition of a woman – witness, for example, the right-on fury that always greets Kellie-Jay Keen whenever she uses the standard definition of ‘woman’ – ‘adult human female’ – as a campaigning slogan (Mail). But now, thanks to lexicographers at the Cambridge Dictionary, campaigners like her will no longer be able to point to the dictionary and say: “See, a woman is an adult human female.”

Are trans activists really attempting to remove the idea of a woman from our minds altogether – and are dictionary compilers complicit in that endeavour? FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle certainly doesn’t seem in the mood to pass the episode off as an unfortunate case of bookish, other-worldly lexicographers inadvertently stumbling into a political minefield (GB News). “Just like publishing houses, libraries, museums, theatres, and other creative and educational industries,” he says, “online dictionaries have been ideologically captured.” The staff will “continue to tweak definitions, not to reflect common usage, but as a form of engineering – in the hope that by redefining words they can modify the way we see the world”.

Laura Dodsworth thinks they may well succeed. In an unsettling piece, the author of A State of Fear reminds us that George Orwell’s 1984 is built around the idea that totalitarianism and corruption of language are intrinsically linked. “Language structures thoughts,” she says, “and if you control language you can control thought.”

Give someone the gift of FSU membership for Christmas

If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas gift, look no further! The Free Speech Union has created a gift voucher that grants the recipient one year’s membership of the Free Speech Union. You can find it here.

Not only will the receiver get all the benefits of being in the FSU, but your generosity will also be contributing to the greater cause of protecting free speech.

Once you’ve landed on the relevant page, just select the tier of membership you’d like to buy – Gold or Full – enter the recipient’s email address, your name, and a personalised message, not forgetting to say what time you’d like them to receive it. It can be Christmas morning if you like. To redeem the voucher, all the information the receiver will need is included in the gift email.

This is the perfect Christmas present for politically correct children and grandchildren who imagine they’ll never be cancelled in a million years, only for their friends and colleagues to turn on them in one of those all-too-familiar, kill-the-heretic feeding frenzies that characterises the woke ‘community’.

FSU debate on the limits to the right to protest

If you buy someone the gift of FSU membership they’ll be able to come along to a debate we’ve organised on freedom of speech and the right to protest. This event will be taking place in central London and members can purchase tickets here. Members can also join online, free of charge, by registering here.

This is an opportunity to explore in-depth, with an expert panel, the distinctions between speech and protest, the importance of both to democratic life and the role of the law and the police in balancing freedom of speech and the right to protest with the rights of citizens to go about their daily life. Is new legislation needed to deal with the latest forms of protest, such as those carried out by Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion? Do existing laws need more effective enforcement or are we in danger of accepting significant infringements on important democratic principles in the name of a quiet life?

The panel features speakers from both sides of the abortion clinic ‘buffer zones’ debate – Ryan Christopher of ADF International (UK) and Ann Furedi, former Chief Exec of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. They will be joined by two FSU staff members to explore the broader speech and protest implications of the issue: Bryn Harris our Chief Legal Counsel and Case Officer Tim Cruddas. Tim served as a police officer for 26 years, working on many major public order operations including student riots, royal weddings and the Olympics. It should be a fascinating evening!

Most controversial film of the year streaming now

The Lady of Heaven, the controversial film about Lady Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, which mobs of Muslim protestors prevented cinema-goers from seeing earlier this year, is now available to view on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play and the Microsoft store. You can read a press release about that here and watch a trailer here. We’re hoping to bring a human rights case against various police forces for not doing enough to protect freedom of expression in this case next year.

One final victory…

Barrister Sarah Phillimore, who had been under investigation by the Bar Standards Board for tweeting about her gender critical beliefs, has had the allegations against her dismissed – thanks, in part, to our help.

Sarah was investigated by the BSB over a period of two years over complaints that she had caused ‘offence’ by tweets deemed to be transphobic, homophobic or anti-Semitic. Sarah denied that they could be characterised in this way and that the BSB had given no sufficient consideration to her Article 10 and Equality Act rights. Further, the BSB refused to reveal the identity of the complainants. With the help of the FSU, Sarah was able to instruct specialist solicitors and find out the complainants’ identities. Sarah was then able to show that three of the five complainants were not acting in good faith. The BSB eventually concluded that none of the tweets complained about were a breach of its Code of Conduct.

If you wish to consider the tweets under consideration, Sarah has set them out in a substack post here.

While Sarah ultimately secured a good outcome, we believe she should never have been put in such a stressful situation to begin with. The regulator’s willingness to indulge allegations that were transparently made in bad faith put her through the wringer for no good reason. The BSB, and other regulators, must consider professionals’ free speech rights from the outset, and not treat it as an after-thought to be considered on appeal. In doing so they will spare themselves, and people like Sarah, needless expense and anxiety.

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.

Merry Christmas!

Toby Young

General Secretary