Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a brief round-up of the free speech news of the week.
The Free Speech Union celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. “In our first year, we have been contacted by hundreds of ordinary people,” Toby told The Express. “They have fallen foul of a censorious minority – often with the backing of HR departments – that will stop at nothing to silence those whose opinions they disapprove of.” In its first year the FSU has helped hundreds of members, including “bus drivers, social workers, council employees, civil servants, police officers, students and teachers”. One such member, featured in The Express article, is Evan Heasley, a firefighter in Suffolk who was given a six-month written warning because he asked a question about the woke gobbledegook being peddled by the Black and Asian Network of Suffolk Council. “Free speech is the very foundation of our democracy,” Toby said. “It allows us to hold those in authority to account, to expose wrongdoing and to robustly debate the most important issues of our time. For all our sakes, it must be protected.”
In a comprehensive piece for Spiked, Brendan O’Neill gives an overview of the present free speech crisis and its denial by those who support censorship. He criticises the present Government as well, pointing out that if it were truly in favour of free speech it would “dismantle laws that mean people can be arrested for making jokes online. It would re-examine ‘religious hatred’ legislation and the chilling impact it can have on playwrighting and comedy. It would overthrow Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence to be ‘grossly offensive’ on the internet. It would scrap Prevent, the anti-radicalisation strategy that has led to numerous illiberal intrusions into people’s reading habits, speech and thoughts.” He argues that “both sides in this so-called culture war fail to see what’s at stake…fail to appreciate why freedom of speech is so essential to human flourishing”.
Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens laments the loss of freedom in Britain in his regular column, recalling in the not too distant past “a general feeling that we were free to do, say and think as we liked within the boundaries of a clearly understood law and of good manners”. Following his recent defence of free speech on Channel 4 News, he says he was “unpleasantly surprised to find just how unpopular this view now is with the fashionable people who watch that programme”. In that interview, he identified the core problem of cancel culture: “The people who are cancelling actually think their opponents are bad – not just wrong, but bad.”
Writing in Spiked, Wendy Kaminer makes an argument for free speech on moral grounds, pointing out that free speech is essential for freedom of conscience. Laws that restrict free speech “violate what should be sacrosanct – freedoms of belief and conscience. Put very simply, regardless of consequences, it is profoundly immoral for any person, civil or governmental entity to assume the power to tell us what to think.”
Left-wing free speech
The Telegraph reports that gender-critical feminists are the most frequent victims of no-platforming at Britain’s most prestigious universities. Out of 21 incidences of no-platforming at Russell Group universities, eight have “involved ‘gender critical’ speakers, including Dame Jenni Murray, feminist campaigner Julie Bindel, and Oxford history professor Selina Todd”. Toby told the Telegraph he’s been shocked that “the main victims of censorious student mobs are Left-wing feminists”.
Professor Selina Todd gave an interview to Spiked, in which she discusses being no-platformed and requiring security to give lectures, as well as broader free speech-related issues. She also makes an exhortation to those on the Left: “The left should be out there defending democracy. It was the left that campaigned for democracy through the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the left that championed women’s suffrage. It’s an absolute tragedy that the left is not owning this debate.”
Comedian Andrew Doyle is often labelled “far-right” but says, “In truth I am more left-wing than most comics. Because I support free speech above all.” The creator of Titania McGrath is the subject of an extensive piece in The Times this week, which also marks the release of his new book Free Speech and why it Matters. The official launch will take place online on the 2nd of March from 7 to 8.30pm. Everyone is welcome to join – and it’s free.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Calvin Robinson recounts the litany of racist abuse that has been directed at him by founder of the Race Trust charity and other supposedly “anti-racist” public figures, who see him as “a puppet controlled by oppressive white puppet-masters, who use me to spout their own messages”. While he recognises “the sad truth…that many on the Left want to remove my freedom to speak independently”, he refuses to “be intimidated or bullied into submission”.
In a separate piece for the Telegraph, Calvin insists that cancel culture is alive and well, pointing to his own recent experience of being no-platformed. “This is a freedom of speech issue,” he argues, concluding: “Freedom of speech is essential to our democracy; it is the cornerstone of every healthy, functioning society. Unless we have free speech, can we ever truly be free?”
All events to resume at Exeter University
After the Exeter University Students’ Guild asked every student society to cancel all events involving external speakers, the FSU wrote to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Lisa Roberts, to remind her of the University’s statutory duty to uphold free speech. The exchange, which has been published on the FSU website, resulted in a decision to resume all events. Toby said: “I’m glad the Vice-Chancellor has finally seen sense. It was as if the Guild saw how censorious other student unions were being and said, ‘Hold my beer.’ Students at Exeter are already being short-changed because of the lockdown. To add to their miseries by cancelling all online events is scandalous.”
Freedom to boo
The FSU has written a letter to the FA arguing that football fans must be allowed to boo players who take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter. Toby wrote: “From a free speech point of view, it cannot be fair or reasonable that people on the pitch are allowed to express their political views, but those in the stands are not.” The Daily Mail wrote about the letter in its sports pages last Saturday.
Free speech reversals
The Liberal Democrat Party deleted a tweet that read: “Should free speech at universities be a priority right now? ‘Absolutely not’.” The tweet quoted a comment by Lib Dem MP Layla Moran on Question Time. The comment and the tweet were a reaction to plans announced by the Department for Education to create a “Free Speech Champion” among a raft of measures to protect free speech and academic freedom at universities.
Facebook apologised for removing ads from ThinkScotland, a unionist think tank, after a letter organised by the FSU and signed by a number of prominent Conservative MPs and a cross-section of peers was sent to Sir Nick Clegg, the chairman of Facebook’s Oversight Board. ThinkScotland’s editor Brian Monteith had argued that the removal of the ads was an attack on free speech, but a Facebook spokeswoman said it was just a “mistake”. “We restored these ads last week and are sorry for the inconvenience caused,” she said. You can read the FSU’s letter to Sir Nick here.
Facebook vs Australia
Australia passed a law requiring Google and Facebook to negotiate payment to Australian news organisations in exchange for including their content on their platforms. Last week, Facebook retaliated to the proposed law with a week-long blockade of news sharing in Australia, but backed down after changes were made to the new law allowing the tech giants more leeway in avoiding the new rules. In a blog post for Facebook, Sir Nick Clegg compared the law to “forcing carmakers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car, and letting the stations set the price”.
Twitter has reintroduced a feature it briefly tested last year that will issue a warning to users before posting anything considered offensive by Twitter’s algorithm. The announcement stated: “We’ve relaunched this experiment on iOS that asks you to review a reply that’s potentially harmful or offensive. Think you’ve received a prompt by mistake? Share your feedback with us so we can improve.” The warning can be ignored.
Writing in Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler warns Christians to anticipate further suppression of speech in the wake of Twitter’s blocking of Irish Catholic Bishop Kevin Doran, whose opposition to assisted suicide apparently violated one of Twitter’s policies. “All of us,” he argues, “insofar as we spend time online, are working for the internet giants, and being paid nothing for our time.” But he offers some suggestion, including, “protest the ‘cancel culture’”, “press for government action to protect free speech on the internet”, and “create alternative services”.
The offence of being offensive
Merseyside Police apologised after promoting a billboard that read “being offensive is an offence” as part of an effort “to encourage people to report hate crime”. After a tsunami of protest, Superintendent Martin Earl clarified that “‘being offensive’ is not in itself an offence”. Toby commented: “It’s deeply alarming that Merseyside Police have such a poor grasp of the law. As Lord Justice Sedley said in a landmark case in 1999, ‘Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’”
The Free Speech Union has written to Merseyside Police asking for assurance that they have not interviewed or arrested anyone for this imaginary crime.
With the support of former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, the Commission for Countering Extremism has released a report calling for new laws that restrict hate speech and the glorification of terrorism. The report’s co-author Sir Mark Rowley said: “Not only have our laws failed to keep pace with the evolving threat of modern-day extremism, current legal boundaries allow extremists to operate with impunity.” Previous attempts to legislate against “hateful extremism” have failed due to free speech concerns as well as an inability to define “extremism” objectively.
Academic freedom to offend
Writing in The Critic, Toby comments on the predicament of Bristol University professor David Miller, under fire for alleged anti-Semitism, owing to his “longstanding interest in conspiracy theories”, especially “those involving Jews”, according to Daniel Finkelstein in The Times. Unlike Finkelstein, who calls for Miller to be sacked, Toby thinks the University ought to “defend the right of all Bristol’s academic staff to express whatever views they like, however offensive some people might find them, provided they don’t break the law”.
Launch of the Free Speech Champions
The Free Speech Champions held a successful launch event last week, featuring a number of speakers, including founder Inaya Folarin Iman, Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Cambridge philosopher Dr Arif Ahmed, as well as a bracing question and answer session with nearly 300 guests, including several of the champions. The event can be viewed on YouTube and donations to the new initiative can be made here.
Sharing the newsletter
We’ve received several requests to make it possible to share these newsletters on social media, and so today we’ve added the option to post them on several platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. Just click on 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.