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 email. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to return in its original form

Some great news broke yesterday evening – the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill returns to the House of Commons on February 7th and we have good reason to believe the new statutory tort, which will enable students and academics to sue universities that breach their speech rights in the County Court, will be restored in full (Telegraph).

This is a big victory and it’s thanks in no small part to our members and supporters who used our digital campaigning tool to email their MPs urging them not to dilute this important Bill.

As we’ve long pointed out, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill strengthens the right of students and academics to discuss, debate, and debunk each other’s views (you can read our most recent briefings herehere and here). Although there are already several laws protecting academic free speech on the statute books, they are more honoured in the breach than the observance. What is so promising about the Higher Ed Bill – at least, as it was originally drafted ­– is that it both strengthens these protections and creates mechanisms for enforcing them. Specifically, Clause 4 created a statutory tort to enable academics and students to sue universities and students’ unions in the County Court for compensation if they breach their new duties to protect free speech on campus, as set out in the Bill.

However, this element of the legislation met with strong opposition during the Bill’s Second Reading and Report stages in the House of Lords in December.

Sensing trouble, we decided to pull together a letter to the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan from more than 50 academics, urging the government not to get rid of the tort (Telegraph). We think our letter helped to dissuade the Government from scrapping the tort altogether, although its defence of the tort could hardly be described as Churchillian. In an attempt to strike a compromise with the Bill’s critics, the government tabled an amendment in the Lords that would require academics and students to only seek compensation in the County Court as a last resort, after first pursuing complaints through the procedures of the relevant university and the higher education regulator (the amendment can be found here, close to the top of page 3). We were unhappy about that. Our position is that the new statutory tort is what would give the legislation’s new free speech duties teeth, and if that’s reduced to a weapon of last resort, the Bill is essentially a dead letter.

In what may turn out to be a stroke of good fortune, however, the critics of the Bill in the Lords rejected this compromise and voted to strip out Clause 4 in its entirety. When the Bill returns to the Commons next week, the government has indicated it will restore the tort in its original form – a far better outcome than if the compromise had been accepted in the Lords.

Credit for this sensible decision should go to Claire Coutinho, the Under Secretary of State for Education and the minister responsible for the Bill. Dozens of academics who’ve been at the sharp end of cancel culture in British universities have contacted her to tell her why they think the tort is essential. She has clearly listened to them and not the sector’s lobbyists in the House of Lords, which is greatly to her credit. In politics, as in other walks of life, being intransigent is not always the best policy.

Online speakeasy with Meghan Murphy – register for tickets here!

Our next members-only Online Speakeasy is ‘Defeating Twitter Bans and Defending Free Speech’, featuring FSU General Secretary Toby Young in conversation with Meghan Murphy. Join us on Zoom at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8th March for this online Speakeasy with Canadian journalist, writer and podcaster Meghan Murphy – you can register for the event here.

Meghan is the founder and editor of Feminist Current, a feminist website and podcast, and host of YouTube channel The Same Drugs. She has spoken up about the issue of gender identity legislation and women’s rights, including in the Canadian senate and the Scottish Parliament, and has had to endure repeated threats of death, rape, violence and censorship (Telegraph). On the topic of censorship, Meghan was permanently banned from Twitter in 2018 for saying that men are not women. Thankfully, the ban was lifted by Twitter’s new owner and CEO, Elon Musk, in November 2022.

You can find Meghan on Twitter here and Substack here. To whet your appetite for the FSU’s Speakeasy, you can listen to Meghan’s appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience here and her Triggernometry podcast appearance here.

Christians risk being criminalised by trans conversion therapy ban

In a letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, 1,400 church leaders from different denominations have warned that the government’s proposed ban on trans conversion therapy is “confused”, “unnecessary”, and could have the unintended consequence of “stifling the voices of loving parents and pastoral carers” (Telegraph).

The authors of the Greater Love Declaration say the teachings of their faiths are “at grave risk of being outlawed by the proposed legislation”. In their letter, they write: “If the Government gives in to activists’ demands, it appears almost certain that innocent Christians will be criminalised. Indeed, this seems to be the goal of at least some of those most eager for a new law… We fear that the proposed legislation could far worsen the situation by stifling the voices of loving parents and pastoral carers.”

In a statement, the Government Equalities Office – which is ultimately responsible for the legislation – said that “there are clearly issues that are not fully resolved” about how the ban will work. “We are determined that legislation will not cause harm to children and young adults experiencing gender-related distress by inadvertently impacting on legitimate conversations parents or clinicians may have with their children,” the statement added.

The FSU is concerned about the impact such a ban might have on the free speech, not just of religious leaders or parents, but also doctors, therapists and teachers and parents. To ensure ministers are careful about what speech the law actually bans, any proposed legislation will need to be scrutinised very carefully. That’s why we’re encouraging our members and supporters to email their MPs, using our campaigning tool, and share these concerns.

The link to the campaigning tool is here.

FSU Chairman Prof Nigel Biggar and the thwarted book cancellation

Eminent Oxford academic and FSU Chairman Professor Nigel Biggar has spoken about British publisher Bloomsbury’s decision to cancel his latest book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, and revealed that a source at the company told him senior executives pulled the plug because junior staff found the book’s conclusion – that colonialism wasn’t all bad – to be in poor taste (Spectator, Telegraph, TCW, Times).

Why are new recruits in areas like publishing so susceptible to this authoritarian ideology? From overwrought Amazon employees prostrating themselves on the floor at so-called “die-ins” to protest the company’s sale of allegedly ‘harmful’ transphobic books (Bloomberg), to LGBTQ+ venue workers primly refusing to host an academic conference because certain speakers hold views that don’t align with their values (Scottish Daily Express), through to sensitive staff at the Old Vic successfully lobbying bosses to scrap Terry Gilliam’s latest musical production because his views on the immutable, biological reality of sex make them feel “uncomfortable” (Mail), the latest generation of activists just don’t seem to care about free speech or freedom of expression.

Come to think of it, what is it about the sight of a small number of shouty, doctrinaire twentysomethings that compels senior executives to fold up their liberal principles and steal silently away? Because as Prof Biggar himself points out, it’s not easy to see why grown-up leaders are so easily spooked by the hyperventilated pressure oozing up from below (Spectator). It’s true that publishers have commercial necessities – but surely, they have civic duties too? “If every publisher behaved like Bloomsbury did with me,” he says, “then important books that challenge received ideas that may be deeply mistaken won’t get published.” (Times)

Prof Biggar’s book challenges what Sherelle Jacobs refers to as the “Evil White Male” version of history, arguing that despite grave mistakes and moments of gross injustice, the British Empire learnt from its errors and was increasingly propelled by humanitarian and liberal ideals, most notably through the abolition and suppression of slavery (Telegraph). It also examines the work of a number of historians who Prof Biggar claims “overstate” the sins of British colonialism, concluding that they are sustained by contempt for the West. (Prof Biggar summarises the core argument of his book in an excellent piece for The Critic here).

The manuscript was delivered at the end of 2020. After reading it, his editor at Bloomsbury emailed to say he was “speechless” with enthusiasm, and that it was one of the most important books he’d come across in some time. Three months later, however, Prof Biggar received an email from Sarah Broadway, the Head of Special Interest Publishing at the company, which said “conditions are not currently favourable to publication” and that she wanted to delay. According to the Times, Prof Biggar asked Ms Broadway to clarify what she meant, and the following email exchange took place:

Ms Broadway: “We consider that public feeling on the subject does not currently support the publication of the book and will reassess that next year.”

Prof Biggar: “Could you clarify for me, please: which public feeling concerns you; in what sense it is ‘unfavourable’ to publication; and what would need to change to make it ‘favourable’ again?”

Ms Broadway: Bloomsbury had “grappled with giving defined criteria” but found this “difficult to define objectively… we have concluded that this subjectivity could lead to your book being in a limbo lasting more than a year or it might not, but we don’t wish to put you in that position of uncertainty.”

Prof Biggar: “It is quite clear . . .  the public feeling that concerns you is that of – for want of a more scientific term – the ‘woke’ Left. Rather than publish cogent arguments and important truths that would attract the aggression of these illiberals, you choose to align yourselves with them by de-platforming me. In so doing, you have made your own contribution to the expansion of authoritarianism and the shrinking of moral and political diversity.”

Sadly, the Times doesn’t record Ms Broadway’s response. It’s difficult to imagine there was one, other than perhaps “Oh, ah”. Even before the renowned Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology decided to whip off the cerebral safety catch and start historicising Ms Broadway’s professional failings as part of the longue durée, you sensed you were in the presence of a Head of Special Interest Publishing who wasn’t at all sure she was equal to the intellectual pressure of events.

Thankfully, Prof Biggar’s book is now being published by William Collins – you can purchase a copy here.

The Government’s secretive Ministry of Truth exposed by new report

A report by the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch has unmasked the scale of the digital surveillance system established by the government since the Covid lockdowns in order to identify, monitor and censor perfectly lawful yet dissenting online speech (Epoch Times, Mail, Press Gazette, Telegraph). Among those spied upon by this sinister network are Peter Hitchens, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Carl Heneghan, Tom Jefferson, Lord Sumption and our own General Secretary.

Speaking to GB News, Toby likened the report to the “Twitter files”, not least for the way it turns up yet more collusion between state agencies and Big Tech. Writing for Spiked, Fraser Myers said it revealed “an unprecedented assault… on our freedom of expression and our freedom to dissent”. The report was “proof”, according to the Mail, that “parts of the British State… were engaged in actions on the edge of thought and speech control”. Timandra Harkness, meanwhile, felt that the secretive disinformation units at the heart of the story pieced together by Big Brother Watch had “no place in a democracy” (Unherd).

Very little information has previously been published voluntarily by the government regarding its domestic counter disinformation units, and it’s only thanks to numerous Freedom of Information and Subject Access requests that Big Brother Watch was able to establish that the government has (at least) three such units, all of which are tasked with monitoring social media users in the UK, flagging ‘misleading’ content to their Whitehall paymasters who then urge tech platforms to silence them. These units are the Counter Disinformation Unit (CDU) in DCMS, the Intelligence and Communications Unit in the Home Office, the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit (since disbanded, according to the government) and the 77th Brigade, a combined Regular and Army reserve unit within the Ministry of Defence.

The CDU, for instance, was originally established to fight what the government calls ‘disinformation’. At first glance that seems like a fairly reasonable remit. After all, disinformation is defined in the dictionary as “false information spread in order to deceive people”. Maybe so, but over at the CDU, the word ‘disinformation’ seems to have been peculiarly malleable.

During the Covid lockdowns, for instance, the unit’s remit was widened to cover not just the disinformation of previous iterations, but also the “inadvertent sharing of false information” – i.e., misinformation. It’s also noticeable that government ministers quickly took to describing the CDU’s task as that of poring over online expression and pressing for the censorship of speech deemed “misleading” or “inappropriate”. (To understand how the government persuaded units tasked with monitoring ‘disinformation’ to spy on critics of its pandemic response, see this clip from Toby’s recent interview on Spectator TV.)

Is there any limit to who the CDU will subject to scrutiny? Apparently not. Conservative MP and former Home Secretary David Davis was among those cited in CDU files as “critical of the Government” after questioning the mathematical reasoning behind Imperial University’s pandemic modelling. Dr Alexandre de Figueiredo, the statistics lead at the Vaccine Confidence Project, also came to the unit’s attention after publishing work looking at the negative impact Covid passports could have on vaccine confidence.

The government claims that the CDU can’t mandate that platforms remove content like this, which is true. But what’s also true is that DCMS enjoys a special relationship with several social networks by dint of its “trusted flagger status”, something that inevitably gives officials extra weight when flagging content for review. Not that they necessarily need that extra weight – as the Twitter Files make clear, such is the power and regulatory heft of government and state agencies that social media companies are always keen and eager to do whatever it is that they think officials want them to do.

The legal issues at stake here are particularly troubling. Article 10 of the ECHR sets out that member states’ interferences with the right to freedom of expression should be provided by law, yet the CDU and the other shadowy anti-disinformation units aren’t authorised by an act of parliament, and currently have no formal judicial or law enforcement function. The fact that entirely lawful content is regularly being flagged at the discretion of unaccountable civil servants in this way poses clear and obvious risks to freedom of speech. As Toby points out, “on this occasion, these agencies may not have gone beyond monitoring our journalistic and social media activities”, but in the absence of a statutory footing and all the attendant Parliamentary oversight and democratic accountability, “what’s to stop them going further next time?” (Spectator).

And what of the future – given that the government’s lockdown-era policies seem to have been abandoned, is there any hope that these units might be disbanded? During a debate on the Online Safety Bill in the House of Commons last year, the then Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, Chris Philp, had this to say: “As far as I am aware we intend to continue with the [CDU]… Clearly, I cannot commit future Ministers in perpetuity, but my personal view – if I am allowed to express it – is that that unit performs a useful function and could valuably be continued into the future.”

The question is, is that “useful function” monitoring cyber threats to our national security… or spying on the government’s political foes?

Regional Speakeasies – book your tickets here!

Having held very lively regional Speakeasies in Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh, the FSU continues its ‘national tour’ next week, with events in Oxford (7th February), Cambridge (8th February), Birmingham (15th February) and Brighton (20th February).

Come along to hear FSU staff members Ben Jones (Oxford), Karolien Celie (Cambridge), Tom Harris (Birmingham) and Toby Young (Brighton) discuss why free speech is worth fighting for. The Regional Speakeasies are a great opportunity to hear how our work is developing across many different fronts, including case work, research, campaigning and lobbying. In addition, there’ll be plenty of time for discussion, as well as socialising with fellow free speech supporters.

Do come along to one and bring curious friends and colleagues, not forgetting to book your places via our Events page, which you can find here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

FSU Communications Officer