Weekly news-round up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. 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 turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons at the bottom of this newsletter 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.

Gender Conversion Ban 

The Government announced this week that it would legislate to ban conversion therapy relating to gender identity as well as sexuality, with a draft bill to be introduced shortly (BBC, Guardian, Mail, Reuters, Telegraph, Times).

The news comes almost a year after Boris Johnson’s Government said there was too much “complexity” for transgender people to be covered by the ban, and that assessment is shared by a number of senior MPs and ministers (Guardian, iNews, Times).

According to the former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, for instance, it will be “difficult to phrase this Bill without unintended consequences in a highly complex area”. Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, who is ultimately responsible for the Bill, pointed out that “many people do not understand how complex this area is” (Telegraph). In a written ministerial statement announcing the imminent publication of the draft Bill, Culture Secretary Michele Donelan warned: “this is a complex area” and “[t]he legislation must not, through a lack of clarity, harm the growing number of children and young adults experiencing gender related distress”.   

At first glance, talk of ‘complexity’ might seem a little odd. After all, most people would agree that trying to forcibly change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity – perhaps through pseudo-scientific quack ‘treatments’ – is wrong and should be outlawed. 

But the fact is we already have a criminal law framework that prohibits offences of “physical or sexual violence”, including provisions for aggravated offences in cases where a criminal act is perceived by the victim, or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s protected characteristics and they include sexual orientation and transgender identity.  

There is also very little evidence that conversion therapy of the conventional type is widespread in the UK. Indeed, when the Government asked a research team from Coventry University to study the evidence on conversion therapy the only examples it was able to find were drawn from the US. As Mark Jenkinson, the Tory MP for Workington put it: “From all the published evidence, it is clear that current laws are sufficient to cover the vanishingly rare number of cases of conversion therapy.” (Telegraph

Where the ‘complexity’ will come into play, however, will be in determining what is – or should be – meant by ‘conversion therapy’. At present, that term is too vaguely defined to form the basis of a workable new law, and if it remains devoid of precise, technical meaning – if its meaning can be extended to encompass whatever trans rights activists want it to mean – then any such law will inevitably have a chilling effect on free speech. 

The warning signs were already there when the prospect of a bill banning conversion therapy first came up under Theresa May’s administration, where it was clear that any attempt to change ‘gender identity’ (not just ‘sexual orientation’) could be considered a form of ‘conversion therapy’. At the same time, little attempt was made to define what ‘gender identity’ meant, which is a particularly acute problem given that it can mean different things depending on whether the context is scientific, medical, sociological or legal. 

If the new bill comes before Parliament in similar form, it will bring with it the risk that various legitimate medical activities – such as referring a young person with a history of mental illness who identifies as trans to a psychotherapist before they decide to embark on an irreversible medical pathway – might fall foul of a legal ban on ‘conversion therapy’.  

As Kemi Badenoch has pointed out, it’s even possible that a poorly-drafted bill would bring conversations between parents and their children within scope of the ban, effectively meaning parents who attempted to dissuade their child from taking puberty blockers could be prosecuted (Times). 

The obvious danger is that without appropriate – and ‘complex’ – definitional work, limiting the scope of the ban, the legislation will allow the state to police conversations between parents and children, as well as force clinicians to rule out treatment that in their professional view is in the best interests of their patients.  

It would be an infringement of a clinician’s right to free speech and not in the interests of their patients to legally prohibit one possible diagnosis and, in some cases, force them to break their Hippocratic Oath. Clinical professionals have both a right and a duty to recommend what in their judgment is the best clinical pathway for a patient who identifies as trans, particularly if that patient is a minor.

Consider a condition like gender dysphoria, currently defined by the NHS as “a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity”. For trans activists and ideologically aligned therapists, this is an innate feeling that must simply be ‘affirmed’, with the young patient’s problems potentially being solved by helping them to ‘admit’ that they’re transgender. Anything less, in their view, would be transphobic and something they would like to fall foul of a conversion therapy ban. Yet for many other medical professionals, research on and around gender identity is still in its infancy, and it cannot be ruled out that in some cases identifying as trans may be symptomatic of a mental disorder – ‘gender dysphoria’ still appears in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of the American psychiatric profession. 

Nor can it be ruled out that an adolescent who identifies as trans and wants to embark on transitioning is simply being swept along by a trend within their peer group or on social media and, if they’re not persuaded to wait before undergoing any medical procedures, such as a double mastectomy, may come to regret it. Is it really in the best interests of such children to criminalise attempts by parents or clinicians to make them pause and reflect before permanently changing their bodies? 

The government does at least seem alive to these dangers. 

Culture Secretary Michele Donelan has said that the draft bill “will protect everyone, including those targeted on the basis of their sexuality or being transgender”, but expressed the hope that during pre-legislative scrutiny of the bill experts in this area will make sure the legislation doesn’t “harm the growing number of children and young adults experiencing gender related distress, through inadvertently criminalising or chilling legitimate conversations parents or clinicians may have with their children”. Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, who is ultimately responsible for the bill, has also acknowledged that framing the law will be ‘difficult’ and has committed to ‘stringent’ pre-legislative scrutiny.  

Initially, the Government will respond to the public consultation that was launched by Liz Truss in 2021 when she was Equalities Minister, and closed last February. (You can read the FSU’s submission to that consultation here.) After that Ms Badenoch will publish a draft bill. The Government then intends to form a joint committee of MPs and peers from across the parties to scrutinise draft legislation before it is introduced to Parliament (Times). 

We’re asking our members to use our campaigning tool to send an email to their MPs raising their concerns about the negative impact of a poorly-drafted conversion therapy bill on free speech. You can find the tool here. Please do fill in the details and contact your MP. It only takes a couple of minutes.

Regional Speakeasies – book your tickets here

If you’re intending to come to our first live events of 2023, then please book your places now – because these events are open to the public, they are likely to sell out. 

Our latest crop of Regional Speakeasies began last night in Cardiff, and we’re heading to Manchester on 25th January and then Edinburgh the following day.

Our speaker in Manchester is Thomas Harris, the FSU’s Director of Data and Impact. Tom joined the FSU from the corporate sector, where he had become increasingly alarmed by the embedding of ‘woke’ ideas within management structures and workplace culture. He now plays a vital role in helping the FSU understand the ideological capture of so many of our institutions, helping to shape our response to future political and cultural trends. Tom will be exploring questions like: Which professions and sectors of employment are the worst for free speech? Who is most likely to need our help? What are the most effective responses to members’ travails? How can we campaign most effectively? How can we keep on growing, so that we can help even more individuals and increase our ability to defend freedom of speech?

In Edinburgh, Fraser Hudghton, the FSU’s Director of Case Management and FSU Scotland Director, will be joined by renowned political commentator and author Iain Macwhirter. There is clearly plenty to discuss right now about Scottish politics and we anticipate a lively evening with plenty of time for audience involvement. We have extra capacity in the venue, so do spread the word to members and non-members alike, using this link.

Debating Free Speech and the Right to Protest – book your tickets here!

London members can gather at our first In-Depth Debate of the year on Monday 23rd January. (Non-members are also welcome). The event takes place at the wonderful Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury, and it’s a great opportunity to hear from all sides of one of the most fraught debates of the current moment – how to balance the right to protest with the right of other citizens to go about their lives. Should all ‘speech’ be protected, even if it’s speech intended to stop your opponents exercising their rights? Is the right to privacy acquiring too much weight relative to the right to free speech? When does speech become protest? These fascinating and important questions will be thrashed out by our excellent panel of speakers and, of course, the audience. You can click here to book your tickets for this live, in-person event. We would love to have as many of you as possible with us in the room, but if you can’t make it in-person, you can still listen in by joining our Zoom link-up. 

Jeremy Clarkson: Latest Victim of Cancel Culture

Following reports that ITV is thinking of firing Jeremy Clarkson as host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (Mail), our General Secretary, Toby Young, has written to Dame Carolyn McCall, the CEO of ITV, urging her to reconsider. Sacking Clarkson would be cancel culture at its most brutal, destroying a person’s livelihood because they’ve said something perfectly lawful, but which someone who thinks of themselves as a ‘victim’ finds offensive.

Clarkson has apologised for any offence he caused and that should be enough. As FSU Deputy Case Director Ben Jones pointed out on Talk TV this week, as a society we believe in the possibility of redemption for hardened criminals. Why can’t we extend the same charity to someone whose only crime is to have said something offensive?

You can read the letter here.

Caledonian Fellowship – applications now open

The Caledonian Fellowship is an award given by the Common Sense Society, and brings together recent undergraduates, graduates, and young professionals who have “demonstrated achievement in their professional or field of study” and who are “committed to preserving and advancing the principles of liberty, prosperity, and beauty”. Over six days of seminars with renowned scholars, Fellows explore the foundational principles of Western civilisation and culture, with a special emphasis on the thinkers and ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. All materials, accommodation and meals are provided during the programme. Any up-and-coming young FSU members who fit the bill and would like to take part can apply here. The seminars take place on September 10th-15th, and the deadline for applications is May 20th.

In Conversation – FSU international

As many members may already know, the FSU has a growing family of overseas sister organisations. Earlier this week, Toby was joined by Sara Gon, Director of FSU South Africa, and Jonathan Ayling, Chief Executive of FSU New Zealand, to discuss a wide range of topics including how free speech is curtailed in the media, the importance of hearing contrary opinions, and the commonalities experienced by our respective organisations. The video is available in full on our YouTube channel – the link is here.

Academic Freedom and Free speech – Toby Young to give annual NCUP lecture

The FSU’s General Secretary will be at King’s College London’s Gordon Museum of Pathology on 28th February to give the annual National Conference of University Professors (NCUP) education lecture. The title of the talk is ‘Free Speech in Universities’, and you can register for tickets here.

SLAPPs – join the fightback and show your support for two crowdfunders

The UK Government is increasingly concerned that Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – or ‘Slapps’ as they are more commonly known – represent a growing threat to free speech within the law and the rule of law, which are fundamental parts of the democratic tradition. And with good reason. According to the Times, Britain is now the “global capital for Slapps, with more court cases initiated here than in America and the European Union combined”.

The complicated acronym in fact hides a remarkably simple tactic. According to the Ministry of Justice’s recent consultation on the challenges presented by the increasing use of this form of litigation, Slapps are libel or privacy cases brought by wealthy companies or individuals where the primary objective is not to win the legal action – which may in fact be all but guaranteed to fail – but to “harass, intimidate and financially and psychologically exhaust one’s opponent via improper means”.

It’s in this context that the FSU has decided to share details of legal crowdfunders set up by two separate parties – Andrew Burgess and Vanessa Warwick. Both Andrew and Vanessa are currently being sued by the same person for defamation in what look like Slapp cases. The person bringing the lawsuits is Samuel Leeds, the man behind Property Investors, a company that was the subject of a recent BBC ‘Inside Out’ investigation. While we do not necessarily accept either defendant’s view of their respective cases – that is a matter for the Court – we believe that they should have a fighting chance of being able to defend themselves. To find out more about each case and to show your support should you want to give it, click here and here.

Politically motivated financial censorship – a call for information

The FSU needs your help. We’re looking for information regarding any examples of politically motivated financial censorship that you, or anyone you know, may have heard about or directly experienced. Here’s why.

In the wake of PayPal’s attempted demonetisation of the FSU last summer, Sally-Ann Hart and Andrew Lewer tabled an amendment to the Financial Services and Markets Bill. The amendment addressed “refusal to provide services for reasons connected with freedom of expression” and stated that: “No payment service provider providing a relevant service may refuse to supply that service to any other person in the United Kingdom if the reason for the refusal is significantly related to the customer exercising his or her right to freedom of expression.”

At the time, Andrew Griffith, the Economic Secretary of the Treasury and the Minister responsible for the Bill, said he “empathise[d] strongly with colleagues’ concerns on the principled issue and potential risks – of protecting customers’ freedom of expression – and whether or not it is possible for service providers with significant market positions to terminate customer relationships at will and at speed”.

However, the amendment was subsequently withdrawn after Mr Griffith promised that the issues it sought to address would be included in the terms of reference of a forthcoming statutory consultation about the Payment Services Regulations.

That consultation has now begun, and it’s great to see that it will cover the regulatory framework currently applied to over 1,000 firms authorised as payment and e-money services in the UK (Reuters). The existing rules, which Britain adopted when part of the European Union, already require payment companies to give customers notice when they terminate an account, but, as per the agreement with Ms Hart and Mr Lewer, the Review will now assess whether clearer guidelines are needed on when companies can withhold or withdraw services from customers and will pay particular attention to the issue of politically motivated financial censorship in its terms of reference.

We think this could be an important moment – the Government appears keen to keep an open-mind on the matter, which means there is now a window of opportunity for us to shape an aspect of public policy that will help to check the creeping trend towards a Chinese-style social system in countries like ours.

On the subject of the Government’s open-mind, it’s particularly encouraging to see that in the consultation (which you can access here), the Government makes it “very clear” that “the legitimate expression of differing views, is an important British liberty”, that it “does not support ‘cancel culture’”, and that “regulations must respect the balance of rights between users’ and service providers’ obligations, including in relation to protecting the freedom of expression of anyone expressing lawful views”.

In order to provide the Government with as many examples of politically motivated financial censorship as we can, we’re asking our members and supporters to send us any examples they may have come across, particularly if it involves them. To be clear, we’re after examples of financial services companies (such as a high street bank), payment processors (like PayPal) and crowdfunding platforms (IndieGoGo) either withholding or withdrawing services from customers because they don’t like their perfectly lawful views.

You can get in touch via our email address: [email protected]. Alternatively, you can direct message us on Facebook (here), Instagram (here) or Twitter (here).

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer