Free Speech Union: Weekly News Round-up

Dear Mike Buchanan,

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 us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Free speech-related parliamentary business in the year ahead

This year’s State Opening of Parliament was notable for the Prince of Wales making what most of us have come to regard simply – but in constitutional terms incorrectly – as “the Queen’s speech” on Her Majesty’s behalf, absent for only the third time in her 70-year reign. In total, the government announced 38 draft Bills that it will seek to introduce during the forthcoming, year-long parliamentary session. Once passed into legislation, at least three of those Bills will have a direct impact on free speech and freedom of expression in the UK.

How will that affect the work of the FSU? On the one hand, there is much to be cautiously optimistic about in the details of the government’s newly announced Bill of Rights and the carried over Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. On the other hand, the (similarly carried over) Online Safety Bill is still a cause of some concern – although the Bill makes welcome provision to protect children from illegal online content, it does not yet provide online freedom of speech and expression with the robust, meaningful protections that the FSU believe it needs.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

It isn’t difficult to understand how we got here, to a situation in which the government of the day could conclude that a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was a necessary piece of legislation in a liberal democracy. Free speech was mentioned in this government’s 2019 election manifesto, and universities (along with their constituent colleges and students’ unions) have long been identified as problem areas when it comes to cancel culture. More than one in four students ‘self-censor’ their opinions on campus, according to an opinion poll in 2020. Three in four politically right-leaning academics say they have to hide their political views on campus. Academics of all political persuasions fear that their careers will be ruined if they speak out against progressive ideas. Speaking appearances from public figures that students – and staff – deem to be “inappropriate” are either summarily cancelled or, as in the case of feminist campaigner Julie Bindel just this week, undertaken amidst verbal abuse and threats of physical violence.

The carried over Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is, as the Mail suggests, an attempt to end this censorious culture and encourage the genuine, open exchange of ideas at institutions for which such exchanges were created. As Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, explained in a recent article for ConHom, the Bill strengthens the duties on universities and Students’ Unions not only to protect, but also to promote free speech and academic freedom.

It’s true, of course, that the draft Bill has, as Lois McLatchie put it for The Critic this week, “languished in some corner of Westminster for the past six months because the government has had other priorities”. Will this be the year in which it finally passes into law? Wonk HE is sceptical: “In a packed legislative programme… it is entirely possible to see a world in which a Bill without buy-in from the Secretary of State fails to pass again.”

The FSU hopes not. Our view is that the Bill cannot be passed too soon (although we’d like to see some amendments to make its free speech protections even stronger). Since February 2020, we’ve intervened in well over 100 cases involving students or academics, and in almost every instance these individuals would have been in a stronger position had the new law been in place. We’ve written a briefing on the Bill (which you can find here) summarising the evidence showing why the Bill is necessary and rebutting some of the most common criticisms of it.

A UK Bill of Rights… and an Online Safety Bill?

Earlier this year, the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, reportedly told the Mail that democratic debate was slowly being “whittled away by wokery and political correctness”. He went on to promise reforms that would allow individuals to speak their minds. Free speech, he said, was to be given “trump card status in a whole range of areas”. It’s only now, however, with the government’s announcement of a new Bill of Rights that we get our first glimpse of the “reforms” Raab had in mind. The Mail describes this Bill of Rights pithily – and hopefully accurately – as a “landmark law to wage war on woke”. Understood in the longue dureé of modern British politics (where, as Harold Wilson put it, “a week is a long time”) it is effectively a replacement for New Labour’s controversial Human Rights Act, which embedded the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic law more than 20 years ago.

That might seem like good news, but as the Spectator was quick to point out, the Bill won’t exist in a legislative vacuum. What, for instance, are we to make of its likely relationship to the Online Safety Bill? Is it “muddled” governmental thinking, the Spectator wonders, that led to Raab’s Bill of Rights being introduced – ostensibly to “enshrine freedom of speech” – just as an Online Safety Bill that will censor it is carried over from last year’s parliamentary session?

It’s a good question, not least because, as the FSU has been arguing for some time, the Online Safety Bill will undoubtedly lead to much greater online censorship. That’s because there’s a strong bias towards the removal of questionable-yet-perfectly-permissible-material built into the very architecture of the Bill. Under the proposed legislation, online providers will risk fines and other sanctions from Ofcom if they don’t remove material but will easily be able to avoid punishment for acting precipitously by demonstrating compliance with an extremely weak duty to “have regard” for free speech.

The relationship between the two Bills is therefore likely to prove rather difficult: the government’s avowed intention to protect adults from “legal but harmful” content will likely end up forcing Big Tech to clamp down on precisely the type of controversial speech that Raab’s Bill of Rights supposedly wants to protect. The Epoch Times made much the same point this week, citing the FSU’s own briefing papers. FSU General Secretary, Toby Young, also touched on these issues when he sat down to discuss the Online Safety Bill with the hosts of the TRIGGERnometry podcast, Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster (you can listen to that episode here).

You can find our free, open access briefings on the Online Safety Bill here, along with our most recent press release about the Bill here.

Douglas Murray speakeasy event on 25 May – book your place now!

Tickets are still available for our exclusive members only online speakeasy on Wednesday 25 May with bestselling author, award winning political commentator and founding Director of the FSU Douglas Murray. Douglas will discuss his latest book – The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (2022) – and answer questions from the audience. (In fact, if you pop over to the FSU’s YouTube channel you’ll see that Douglas has very kindly filmed a little piece to camera for us, inviting all FSU members to come along to the event – and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel)

As many of you will know, Douglas founded the Centre for Social Cohesion in 2007, which became part of the Henry Jackson Society, where he was Associate Director from 2011-18. In 2009, he was awarded the Charles Douglas-Home memorial prize for journalism. He is an associate editor of the Spectator, and a columnist for the New York Post and the Sun. Murray is also the bestselling author of seven books, including The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (2017), which was translated into more than 20 languages. His follow-up, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (2019) was named “Book of the Year” by both the Times and the Sunday Times. His latest book The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (2022) is currently in the New York Times Top 10 bestseller list, and recently went straight into the Sunday Times bestseller list at #1. This really is a unique opportunity to participate in an online conversation with the best-selling conservative author.

If you’re not yet a member, but would like to attend, then you still can – just click here to join us and you’ll be able to secure your place at the event. Discount membership only costs £2.49 a month.

Frances Widdowson’s crowd funder

On 20 December 2021, Professor Frances Widdowson was fired from her position as a Professor in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University in Canada for questioning ‘woke’ ideas. In the ‘story’ section of her FundRazr page, Professor Widdowson offers up a formidably academic yet piercingly accurate definition of ‘Woke-ism’ as “the colloquial term used for the postmodern tactic of reducing scientific objectivity to subjective authoritarianism, imposing its arbitrary interpretation of what is acceptable”. In her own case, the weapons of ‘woke-ism’ were university policies that turned intellectual disagreements into matters for investigation and disciplinary action. One of her Tweets satirizing a cartoon about “misgendering fatigue” was found by an outside investigator (hired by Mount Royal University) to have violated three policies and two laws – without, of course, any legal rationale being provided for those conclusions.

You can support Professor Widdowson in her fight for academic freedom here.

Living Freedom event now open for applications

The FSU is pleased to announce that Living Freedom 2022 is now open for applications. Living Freedom is devised and produced by Battle of Ideas (BOI) in association with the Free Speech Champions. The annual residential school takes place live and in person in central London, running from Thursday 30 June (6pm) to Saturday 2 July (7pm). Living Freedom will appeal to students and graduates as well as to young campaigners, academics, professionals and creatives. The school is for anyone aged 18-30 who values getting behind the headlines and relishes the chance to engage in an open-ended exploration of new ideas. Participants will attend expert talks, hear from critics and campaigners, and participate in debates, seminars and workshops – and with accommodation and meals provided, there’s plenty of time for socialising too. For information on the school and how to secure a place, click here. Should you need further information, please email the Living Freedom convenor, Alastair Donald here, or call +44 (0)20 7269 9233. And please do forward this email to friends, colleagues, contacts, students and anyone you think may be interested.

Jacob Mchangama’s appearance on Tangle’s latest podcast

Jacob Mchangama will be a familiar name to many of our members. The Danish lawyer, human-rights advocate, social commentator and founding director of Justitia, a Copenhagen-based think tank, was a guest speaker and panellist at the recent launch of the FSU’s Scottish office. You can hear Jacob discussing his latest book – Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media – on the latest episode of the podcast Tangle: Politics from all Sides. It’s a fascinating listen. The link is here.

Spiked’s new internship opportunity

Spiked has just announced details of its new internship programme. The online magazine will be offering paid, six-month placements to aspiring writers, editors, podcast producers and video makers. Successful applicants will work with Spiked for five days a week in the magazine’s London office. There are two tracks to choose from, an editorial internship (helping to produce articles, features and essays) or an audio/visual internship (helping to produce podcasts and videos.) You can find out how to apply for each track here.

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.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

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