Weekly newsletter

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.

Regional Speakeasies – book your tickets today!

The FSU is kicking off 2023 with a brand-new series of Regional Speakeasies around the UK! We start in Cardiff next week (19th January), before hosting events in the following cities: Manchester (25th January); Edinburgh (26th January); Oxford (7th February); Cambridge (8th February); Birmingham (15th February); and Brighton (20th February). Full details of how to book tickets are available here.

Each event will be addressed by a senior member of FSU staff – in Cardiff, for instance, our Education and Events team will be joined by the FSU’s Chief Legal Counsel, Dr Bryn Harris, who will be exploring questions like: Why is free speech worth fighting for? What are the biggest threats to free speech today? Why has free speech become so mistrusted? And what can be done to defend it?

The Regional Speakeasies are a great chance to find out why the individuals involved in the FSU are so passionate about defending freedom of speech and expression, and how our work is developing across many different fronts, from case work with members who’ve fallen prey to cancel culture to campaigning for stronger legislative protections of free speech, and from Parliamentary lobbying to briefing papers designed to influence public policy. There will, of course, be plenty of time for discussion, as well as socialising with fellow free speech supporters.

This year, our Regional Speakeasies are open to anyone who wants to attend – so if you aren’t yet a member but would like to know more about what we do, then please click here to visit our Events page and book your tickets today. FSU members go free, while non-members can purchase tickets for just £2!

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

The debate about abortion clinic ‘buffer zones’ (or ‘censorship zones’ as their opponents term them) was brought into sharp focus recently, when the anti-abortion campaigner Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested for standing silently in a street near an abortion clinic in Birmingham. (FSU Advisory Council member Prof Andrew Tettenborn wrote about the incident’s wider implications for Spiked.) She has now been charged with four breaches of the ‘Public Space Protection Order’ (PSPO) imposed by Birmingham Council which prohibits certain activities in the area around the clinic.

It’s a fascinatingly complex case – and highly charged because the Government is about to impose ‘buffer zones’ around every abortion clinic in England and Wales. Isabel’s defenders argue that her case represents a worrying suppression of silent prayer and is a free speech issue; supporters of Birmingham Council – and women’s sex-based rights – counter that Isabel’s arrest wasn’t quite as egregious as it might at first glance appear, and that the ‘buffer zone’ within which Isabel chose to stand has been imposed to protect women from harassment while accessing legal medical treatment.

Clearly this is a debate that raises many important questions about freedom of speech, thought and expression. What constitutes protest? The anti-abortion side say they are not protesting but praying or offering ‘counselling’ to the women about to go into the clinic. What constitutes speech? Does it include images, silent prayer or singing? How does the location of speech affect society’s willingness to tolerate it? Even from a purely legal perspective, the issue is nuanced. On the one hand, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; but, on the other, Article 8 – which local authorities like Birmingham Council are required to consider – protects the right to privacy.

That’s why we’re delighted that two of the main protagonists in this debate have agreed to join us at a live event in London on Monday 23rd January: Ryan Christopher, director of pro-life group ADF International, and Ann Furedi, author of The Moral Case for Abortion and former chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). They will be joined on stage by the FSU’s Chief Legal Counsel, Bryn Harris, and FSU Case Officer Tim Cruddas, who was a serving police officer for 26 years and has, on numerous occasions, been responsible for the policing of protests and other public order incidents. 

FSU members who are able to get to central London on Monday 23rd January can book tickets here. The event is open to the public, so please feel free to spread the word and encourage others to come along. Members can also join the live event free of charge via Zoom. Please register here if you’d like to watch the debate.

Art history lecturer fired for showing painting of the Prophet Muhammed

From the barbaric stabbing of Salman Rushdie, to the beheading of Samuel Paty, the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the case of the Batley Grammar School teacher forced into hiding, elite deference to mob fury over depictions of Islam has for some time now been feeding the slow creep of de facto blasphemy laws in the West. Minnesota’s Hamline University is the latest institution to facilitate the informal codification of these nascent speech codes, having sacked an adjunct art history professor for the ‘crime’ of showing a 14th century painting of the Prophet Muhammad during class (Guardian, Independent, Mail, New York Times).

As reported in the New York Times, Dr López Prater knew the risks involved, and took sensible precautions. She warned students both verbally and in the syllabus that they would be shown sensitive images of holy figures such as the Buddha and Prophet Mohammed. No-one complained. She asked students to contact her with any concerns. No-one did. During the lecture she even prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave without penalty. No-one left. In other words she acted, as the historian David Perry puts it, “with integrity and care” (CNN).  

Yet when a member of the Muslim Student Association subsequently complained that the use of the painting disrespected her religion and made her feel like she “didn’t belong” and would “never belong” at Hamline, senior administrators took the extraordinary decision to publicly impugn Dr Prater’s academic reputation before releasing her early from spring teaching. “It was,” they quavered, “best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community” (Mail, New Lines).

In a university-wide email, Hamline’s Vice President for ‘inclusive excellence’ sought to justify Dr Prater’s termination on the basis that her pedagogy was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic”. The University’s President then co-signed an email to students stating that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom”. And when a letter written in defence of Dr Prater’s actions by the Chair of the Department of Religion, Dr Mark Berkson, was published in the University’s student newspaper, the editors were eventually pressured into taking it down because it “caused harm”.

How could they? But they did. And the situation faced by Dr Prater – that now allegedly “inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic” academic – is all the more precarious given that, as an adjunct professor, she is one of the US higher education system’s underclass of sweated knowledge workers, labouring for little pay, receiving few of the workplace protections enjoyed by tenured faculty members and reliant on the award of temporary contracts.

As to the wider implications of the University’s actions, Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University, said that Hamline’s action “endangers… professors who show things in class, from premodern Islamic art to Hundi images with swastikas to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ”.

Over in the Guardian, Kenan Malik felt that “the most damaging aspect” of Hamline’s actions, “is the use of the language of diversity to eviscerate the very meaning of diversity”. A term that was supposed to embrace phenomena like dissent, disagreement and tolerance for things one might find offensive, he said, is increasingly being used to describe “a space in which dissent and disagreement have to be expunged in the name of ‘respect’ and where tolerance requires one to refrain from saying or doing things that might be deemed offensive”.

Thankfully, a free speech fightback is underway. The US campaign group PEN America has involved itself in the case, and described what happened as “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory”.

An Islamic art historian who wrote an essay defending Dr Prater has also started a petition demanding the University’s board investigate the matter and agree to an independent investigation of the processes by which a faculty member could be dismissed without due process. (The petition currently has over 13,000 signatures – you can sign it here).

As it happens, the institution’s senior leadership may have no choice but to break out the props from the drama department and do a passable performance of contrition. The US-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has now filed a formal complaint with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) – Hamline’s accreditor, which requires all accredited institutions to protect academic freedom (Mail). In a letter to the accreditor, FIRE’s director, Alex Morey, suggests that Dr Prater’s nonrenewal “violates both HLC and Hamline policies clearly committing the University to free expression and its corollary, academic freedom for all faculty”.

Policing with for Pride

Over the past three years, police forces in England and Wales have spent £66,689 on rainbow-themed merchandise, including flags, selfie frames, pens, whistles, key rings, shoelaces, and lip balm, according to figures released in response to freedom of information requests. Research undertaken by the Taxpayers’ Alliance found hundreds of pounds was also spent on decorating police cars in rainbow livery (Express, GB News, LBC, NewsLetter, Mail, Telegraph).

The news follows in the wake of the latest ONS figures (June 2022), which show that while recorded crime in England and Wales has hit a 20-year high, the proportion of all offences resulting in a charge has fallen from 7.5% cent to 5.8% since 2014/15.

The highest spender on LGBTQ+ merchandise was South Wales Police, which racked up a scarcely believable £24,000 on rainbow flags, face paints, T-shirts, badges, pens, whistles, wristbands, sporks, trolley keyrings, water bottles and keyrings.

In second place was Kent Police, which forked out £8,000 on rainbow whistles, key rings, wristbands, grip pens, erasers, paper stickers, curvy pens, pencils, coasters, lanyards, ID holders and trolley-coins. Chief Superintendent Amanda Tillotson, of Kent Police, was unrepentant. Her force spent the money on what she terms “LGBT+ crime-prevention merchandise”, she told the Express, because it reminds the public of the importance of communities “working together to support and protect each other”.

Lancashire Police purchased £1,500 worth of rainbow lip balm, flags, keyrings, lanyards and stickers, while Wiltshire Police forked out a very precise £538 on LGBTQ+ lanyards and “rainbow fuzzy bugs”. And so on and so forth.

Is this a free speech issue? Yes – but a nuanced one. As the FSU’s Research Officer Carrie Clark points out for Spiked (here and here), many individual officers no doubt regard the rainbow symbol as an innocuous means of showing support for LGBTQ+ rights. But to gender-critical feminists it represents an ideology that undermines women’s rights, child safeguarding and the concept of biological sex. In other words, it’s a clear statement of political affiliation.

This matters. The public sector is meant to serve all British citizens equally, including those who disagree with the ideology symbolised by the Pride flag – indeed, the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics states that “police officers must not take any active part in politics”. So as Carrie says, “when police fly the Pride flag, gender-critical Brits may well fear that they will not be treated fairly”.

And they have good reason to fear this, given the willingness of the police to don their LGBTQ+ themed lanyards, tie up their rainbow laces, and get after critics of transgender ideology like Jennifer Swayne (arrested for putting up stickers reading “no men in women’s prisons”), Darren Brady (arrested for sharing a meme mocking the Progress Pride flag), and Kellie-Jay Keen (accused of a hate-crime offence for expressing gender-critical views).

The ubiquity of the rainbow Pride symbol on police uniforms, buildings, squad cars and now in stockrooms apparently stuffed to the rafters with rainbow-themed merchandise may well be a ‘culture war’ issue. But it’s also having “a profound effect on freedom of expression”. Whether or not access to just treatment by law enforcement does in fact depend on holding the ‘correct’ views, the fact is that when it starts to appear that way to lawful critics of transgender ideology it cannot fail to have a chilling effect.

An update on the Financial Services and Markets Bill

If there was any good to come out of PayPal’s attempted demonetisation of the FSU last summer, it was that it exposed a gap in the UK’s free speech protection.
The recent digitalisation of financial transactions has placed a vast amount of power in the hands of financial services companies like payment processors, banks, online platforms and credit companies like Visa and Mastercard (CriticTelegraph). Yet UK legislation has failed to keep pace with these rapid technological changes, leaving British citizens exposed to the risk of being deplatformed by California-based Big Tech corporations simply for expressing legal, but dissenting, contrarian or sceptical views (SpectatorSpiked).
Earlier this week, however, the Financial Services and Markets Bill reached second reading stage in the House of Lords, and Baroness Claire Fox’s typically incisive intervention will surely encourage those who view this legislation as an opportunity to check the creeping trend towards Big Tech platforms financially censoring customers who express dissenting views before it becomes institutionally normalised.

During the speech (which you can watch here), Baroness Fox signalled her intention to table an amendment to the Bill “to say that while I understand that private companies have a right to choose who they do business with and should be vigilant about fraud and illegal transactions, they should never discriminate on the basis of an organisation’s political, philosophical or religious beliefs”.

Baroness Fox’s amendment is similar to the amendment tabled in the House of Commons by Sally-Ann Hart and Andrew Lewer last year. Their 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”.

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

Baroness Fox’s intervention is therefore all the more timely given that the statutory review alluded to by Mr Griffith will begin later this month. As per the agreement with Ms Hart and Mr Lewer, the review will include the issue of politically motivated financial censorship in its terms of reference – and Mr Griffiths has confirmed that it will be a public consultation.

In order to provide the Government with as many examples of this kind of censorship as we can, we’re asking our members and supporters to send us any examples they 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.

The FSU has certainly got a few examples of its own to put forward. After all, PayPal didn’t just shut down our accounts without prior warning, meaningful explanation, or recourse to a proper appeals process last summer – it did the exact same thing to the Daily Sceptic, Law or Fiction and UsforThemUK (Telegraph).

And what about PayPal and Etsy deplatforming the evolutionary biologist and gender critical writer Colin Wright earlier in the year simply for expressing his belief in biological reality? (Quillette). Not forgetting, of course, that around the same time PayPal was also busily deplatforming left-wing alternative media sites Mint Publishing and Consortium News for publishing stories that questioned the rationale for the West’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion (TK Media).

True, PayPal has been on its best behaviour since last year’s high-profile media coverage put a spotlight on its appalling behaviour and threatened its stock market capitalisation (Pavlovic Today). But the question remains – for how long will this digital behemoth be content to skulk in its Californian lair, licking its wounds and thinking hard thoughts about our General Secretary, before some passing morsel of ‘wrongthink’ tempts it to start throwing its ideological weight about once again?

More to the point, PayPal isn’t the only online payment services provider that’s shown a propensity for restricting the lawful speech rights of its customers.

Back in February 2022, online donations platform GoFundMe took the decision to withhold donations specifically to Canadian truckers protesting vaccine mandates in what came to be known as the ‘Freedom Convoy’ (Spiked).

More recently, Ko-Fi, an online platform that allows users to sell their work and raise donations, removed a number of accounts belonging to UK-based feminists and feminist organisations due to their gender critical views (Reclaim the Net).

Last month, ticketing website Eventbrite was accused of conducting a “campaign of cancellation” against gender critical events after pulling tickets for a book launch organised by Woman’s Place UK, and a screening of Adult Human Female, a documentary critiquing gender ideology (Telegraph, Reclaim the Net). In both cases, ticket holders were suddenly refunded their tickets, all trace of the event was removed from the Eventbrite website, and organisers were informed by the company’s Orwellian sounding “trust and safety team” that the event violated policies on “hateful, dangerous, or violent content”.

Then, in November, an event organised by Sarah Phillimore, a barrister, and Graham Linehan, the comedy writer famous for Father Ted, to promote their book Transpositions – a collection of testimonies from people concerned about gender identity ideology – had its listing and tickets purged in an apparently identical fashion (Epoch TimesScottish Daily ExpressTelegraph).

And just this week it emerged that crowdfunding site IndieGoGo had summarily cancelled a funding campaign by cartoonist, comic creator and gender critical feminist Nina Paley after her project to self-publish a comic book had reached its target (Post Millennial). Having refunded all donors and denied Paley an appeals process, the company informed her that her perfectly lawful work – the wonderfully titled Agents of H.A.G. – did not comply with their ‘Terms of Use’ and refunded all donors.

If you’ve got any of your own examples of politically motivated financial censorship, then please do get in touch – help us make it clear to the Government that we need to stop the emergence of a Chinese-style social credit system in the UK dead in its tracks.

Change.org Removes Gender Critical Petition

A group of gender critical feminists, including some members of the FSU, posted a petition on Change.org last week asking the Tate Modern to shelve plans to host a Drag Queen Story Hour event for children in February half-term. Change.org removed that petition and the organisers have now reposted it on ipetitions.com. You can find it here.

An Academic Survival Guide

One of our members has asked us to mention his book, The Academic’s Survival Guide: Success in a Selfish World. It’s about how to navigate the crocodile-filled waters of the woke swamp that is Britain’s higher education sector. And, as the author explains, he hasn’t dared publish it under his real name:

At the time and place of writing (England, September 2022), much of Western academia is controlled by ‘woke’ neo-Marxist riff raff who are setting the agenda for our future graduates. These academics are intent on decolonizing the curricula to remove historical facts that may upset the audience. In doing so, they are distorting history and do their supposed customers (the students) a considerable disservice. Furthermore, University departments are increasingly run by Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Committees that advocate and insist on selected gender, political and racial theories, including nonsense such as critical race theory and “white privilege”. These committees are encouraged by Senior Management and Human Resources (HR), who believe that these views are representative of what society and the students want and need, and which give them the locus standi to perpetually interfere.

If you’re a newly-minted academic and you haven’t yet signed up to the social justice cult, you can buy the book the book here. It’s free for members of Amazon Prime.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough