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.

Transactivists “hound” the Education Secretary at the University of Warwick

FSU General Secretary, Toby Young, was quoted in the Telegraph this week warning that the “intolerant atmosphere on Britain’s campuses is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China”. Small wonder, then, that the FSU “get about a dozen requests for help a week from university students or academics who’ve got into trouble for exercising their lawful right to free speech”.

As if to demonstrate the growing tendency in universities not to argue with positions but to attack the persons who hold them, a few days later the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, was “hounded” – as both the Telegraph and the Mail put it – by transactivists during a talk he was giving to Warwick University’s Conservative Association. Why? Because according to the protestors, Zahawi is not only “Tory scum” but a “transphobe” to boot. The latter claim is based on the fact that Zahawi was once asked for a definition of a ‘woman’ and promptly responded that “a woman is an adult human female. Biology was my favourite subject at school. It’s a straightforward answer.” That might appear an uncontentious statement of fact, but not in the world according to radical transactivists, where apparently it constitutes a “transphobic dog-whistle” (The Metro). Protestors also appear to have taken issue with Zahawi’s strident defence of Kathleen Stock, the philosophy professor, during the period last year when she was targeted by transactivists at Sussex University (the Telegraph).

The issue for the FSU in all of this is not whether we agree with the political beliefs espoused by any particular group of activists, but whether the tactics they adopt while campaigning on the basis of those beliefs lead to the curtailment (or denial) of the speech of others. It’s an important point, and one the Education Secretary himself seems keen to uphold. In response to an exclusive from Guido Fawkes that the son of Labour politician Yvette Cooper led the protests at the event, Zahawi took to Twitter to point out that this student’s “right to free speech is vital too”, and that he “made a reasonable point about how schools can help children” which “he was happy to debate”.

None of the other protestors were mentioned, no doubt because the vast majority of them seemed less inclined to debate Zahawi in the way Yvette Cooper’s son had. As the Mail reported, no sooner had Warwick University’s Conservative Society invited Mr Zahawi to campus, than the Warwick Student Union’s society for “Lesbian, Gay, Bi+, Trans, Undefined and Asexual/Aromantic” people began its attempts to have him no-platformed, complaining that he “played a significant role in institutionalised transphobia” and that his presence on campus would “clearly violate Student Union by-laws on equality and diversity”.

On the evening of the talk, dozens of protestors gathered outside the lecture hall where Mr Zahawi was speaking to chant “Tory Scum!”, bang on the doors, and, according to footage seen by the Daily Mail, blast music from a loudspeaker at such volume that it became difficult for those inside the meeting to hear each other. Incidentally, the footage posted by the protestors had been captioned “Sorry?? We cant [sic] really hear you!”, which suggests that some of these student activists might more productively have spent the evening brushing up on their grammar and punctuation in the library. In the end, the Secretary of State had to be ushered away by security guards as he was pursued by activists brandishing rainbow flags.

Chasing your opponents away while denouncing them as “Scum!” was, as Ross Clark noted for the Telegraph, rather an odd way for these protestors to challenge what they’d been describing as “hate”. Ross is all for the right to protest, but he does go on to ask the following, thought-provoking question: would university authorities have taken such a back seat had these, say, been Brexiteer students who verbally assaulted an EU official who had been invited to give a talk? Clark notes with interest that in response to an enquiry from the Telegraph, Warwick declined to comment. His broader point, though, is that in post-Brexit Britain what is considered to be “hatred” by the Right is all too often glossed as mere “activism” when committed by the Left. Universities must avoid getting drawn down this line of thinking, he argues: “Mob-style shouting on the Left must never be excused on the grounds that the perpetrators supposedly have their hearts in the right place.”

Speakeasy with Dr Joanna Williams – book your place now!

Following the FSU’s online Speakeasy with Douglas Murray on Wednesday 25 May ­– our best attended Speakeasy to date – our next one will be on Wednesday 15 June at 6:30pm BST. General Secretary Toby Young will be joined by Dr Joanna Williams to discuss her new book: How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. Joanna is one of Britain’s sharpest and most eloquent writers on the phenomenon of ‘woke’. In How Woke Won, she forensically exposes how the ‘woke’ culture war has exploded into our schools, workplaces, media and politics – and why we need to fight back against this threat. Please register here to receive the Zoom link. 

FSU Summer Comedy Night – tickets available now!

FSU members are warmly invited to round up their family and friends for the FSU comedy night on Wednesday 29 June. This extravaganza of comedy and music is being held in association with Comedy Unleashed – the home of free-thinking comedy. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby, and Dominic will also be performing a special set of comedy hits, old and new, with his amazing band The Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner and ubermeister of lounge, Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be bringing the glamour of Das Vegas to the stage with his legendary friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and TomMones. Book your tickets here to join the fun with the whole FSU team and 100s of FSU members. 

Pronouns in the classroom – a request for information from our members

Over in the US, the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR) has written to the principal of a Middle School in Wisconsin in response to an ‘incident report’ submitted through their transparency website (which you can access here). The details are scarcely believable:

A Wisconsin school district has filed sexual harassment complaints against three middle schoolers for calling a classmate by a wrong pronoun. The school district in Kiel has charged the three eight-graders at the Kiel Middle School with sexual harassment after an incident in April in which the students refused to use “they” to refer to a classmate who had switched pronouns a month before the alleged incident, according to reports.

As FAIR concede, “it may be polite for students to use the preferred pronouns of their classmates”, but in the US, “punishing them if they do not” is to “disregard their First Amendment rights”. In “our system”, they point out, “students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate”.  

As these references to the First Amendment and “our system” suggest, FAIR’s concern is to contextualise and assess these claims in respect of the United States’ legal and constitutional system. But the allegation they’re addressing has got the FSU thinking about whether similar issues might be starting to emerge in the UK. So with that in mind we’d like to ask our members if any of their children (or indeed grandchildren) are being asked to use the preferred gender pronouns of their trans classmates and threatened with penalties for not doing so. We think that would be unlawful.

Helsinki Court of Appeals announces Päivi Räsänen case will be reopened

On 31 May, the Helsinki Court of Appeals in Finland accepted the complaint of the Finnish prosecutor and will reopen the Päivi Räsänen case, according to Evangelical Focus. Räsänen is a Member of the Finnish Parliament, Chair of the Christian Democrats in the Parliament of Finland, and a former Interior Minister (2011-2015). The case in question concerns a critical comment she made about the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) participation in the Helsinki Pride event.

The case against Räsänen began back in June 2019 after she posted a photo of Romans 1:24–27 from the New Testament that described same-sex relationships as “shameful”. In the attached post, she criticised the Lutheran Church’s decision to become an official partner of Helsinki Pride 2019: “How can the church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?”

The Finnish Police investigated Räsänen, with the General Prosecutor of Finland subsequently bringing the politician to court over three separate times. In each case, she was accused of breaking Chapter 10 of the Finnish Penal Code, which prohibits “incitement to hatred” against homosexuals.

In March this year, however, the judges of the District Court of Helsinki in Finland unanimously dismissed the charges. At the time, Räsänen described herself as grateful for having had the chance to stand up for freedom of speech, which is an essential right in a democratic country and appreciative of the fact that the Court recognized in its ruling the importance of free speech. Noting that the prosecutor intended to appeal she underlined that she was “prepared to defend freedom of expression and religion at all necessary levels of justice, even, if necessary, before the European Court of Human Rights”.

It may well now come to that. Responding to the news that the prosecutor is going to appeal the judgement, Räsänen suggested that “the extension of the trial will allow the establishment of legal precedent on freedom of expression and religion from even a higher court. This would then serve as a legal guide regarding any similar charges in the future”.

Sources in Finland say the process will not begin before the autumn and could start as late as 2023.

The return of NCHIs?

At the weekend, the Mail reported that the Home Office is in the process of drawing up a new hate crime strategy, which aims to “increase the reporting of all forms of hate crime, including those relating to gender identity”. This would see “perpetrators accused of ‘non-crime hate incidents’” (or NCHIs). Both the Mail and LBC argued that because this new strategy involves encouraging more people to complain to police about anti-trans hate crimes, it could end up criminalising comedians such as Ricky Gervais. It’s certainly possible, but in the FSU’s experience, it’s almost always people who aren’t famous, people who don’t have famous friends to fight their corner, who end up falling foul of NCHIs.

We’ve been pointing out for a long time now that NCHIs are a sinister form of thought-policing. According to the College of Policing (CoP) guidelines drawn up in 2014, NCHIs are any non-criminal act of hostility towards someone with a ‘protected’ characteristic that’s perceived to be motivated by hatred of that characteristic. They can be reported by the victim or by anyone who witnessed the incident and are recorded irrespective of whether there is any objective evidence to identify the hate element. NCHIs also show up on advanced criminal records checks, which can obviously prevent people getting jobs.

So why is it, asked Fraser Myers for Spiked, that the police just can’t seem to wean themselves off these things? It’s a good question. For a while, it seemed like there was light at the end of the tunnel. Back in 2018, for instance, Sarah Thornton, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said the police should “solve more burglaries and bear down on violence before we make more records of incidents that are not crimes”. Last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the CoP’s guidance telling forces to always record incidents believed to be “motivated by a hostility or prejudice against a person” as NCHIs violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court of Appeal then told the CoP to draw up more explicit safeguards to protect free speech, with Home Secretary Priti Patel subsequently writing to the body to urge it to wipe all NCHIs from people’s records and publish revised hate crime guidance by the end of May 2022.

Not only has that May deadline now come and gone, but as Sarah Phillimore, a barrister from Fair Cop argued this week, the Home Office’s latest plans “suggest either that the Government is not paying attention, or that they have contempt for the Court of Appeal”. Either way, she felt it was “astonishing that legislators are planning to expand the discredited and unlawful practice of recording NCHIs”.

Is there anything on the positive side of the ledger when it comes to NCHIs? The Mail says that “those in favour of the proposals which would see ‘perpetrators’ accused of ‘non-crime hate incidents’ hope people will feel better protected from harm”. Although the Mail decides to leave its readers to reflect for themselves on the type of person it would take to think like that, over in the Express former Home Secretary Anne Widdicombe isn’t so reticent. “Inevitably”, she thunders at one point, “the justification for this insidious attempt to create a Big Brother society is that people will feel protected”. But “how can you feel protected if you are liable to a police record without due process? Or does it not matter how vulnerable you feel if you are not one of a minority group with protected characteristics?” They’re what you might call rhetorical questions. 

If you’d like to know more, the FSU’s detailed briefing on NCHIs can be accessed here. If you’d like a quick, five-minute read on the topic, our FAQs on NCHIs is here.

Publishers scared of cancel culture made Anthony Horowitz rewrite his latest book

Margaret Atwood made the headlines this week, firing a flamethrower at a specially made, unburnable copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The gesture’s political connotations weren’t difficult to discern. “Across the United States and around the world”, the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, explained in an accompanying statement, “books are being challenged, banned and even burned. So we created a special edition of a book that’s been challenged and banned for decades.”

Yet literary censorship is as much about the suppression of ideas prior to publication as it is about their destruction once they’ve been bound and are on peoples’ shelves, desks and coffee tables. Only this week, for instance, renowned author Anthony Horowitz was left “shocked” by notes from his publisher “about things which I could or couldn’t say” (Telegraph). He went on to reveal that they’d told him to rewrite his latest children’s book, Where Seagulls Dare: A Diamond Brothers Case, because there was a concern that jokes related to “the usual -isms” could be “misconstrued in the present climate”.

The process required a “fairly extensive” edit and, perhaps unsurprisingly, left him in a reflective mood. According to the Mail, he told an audience at the Hay Festival this week that “I’m very, very scared by what you’re calling cancel culture. I think what’s happening to writers is extremely dangerous: where certain words are hidden, where certain thoughts are not allowed any more, certain activities obviously to do with gender or to do with ethnicity.” Writers, he added, must “lead the agenda and not be cowed by it. You must be free to write what you want, and to express the views you want to express without the world falling in on you.”

What were the “usual -isms” his publishers had asked him to remove? He didn’t say, although the (presumably now revised) blurb for the book reads as follows:

Private investigators Tim and Nick Diamond haven’t had a case for three months and are down to their last cornflake. So when a glamorous woman comes into their office offering them a pile of cash to find her missing father, they think Christmas had come – only it turns out they’re the turkeys! Before they know it, they are caught up in a case involving bike-riding hitmen, super hackers and a sinister far-right organisation, the White Crusaders.

Whatever the “usual -isms” Horowitz’s publishers were fretting over, it’s good to see they were entirely relaxed about the possibility of Horowitz’s young, impressionable readers encountering right-wing politics as the preserve of bad guys either too stupid to think through the cultural and political implications of their organisation’s branding, or too racist to care. Quite right too. As Horowitz himself puts it, authors shouldn’t have to work in a “culture of fear”; a culture that “limits your ability to express the views that you want to express”, whether those views involve “the usual -isms”, characters like the “White Crusaders”, or whatever else.

Writing about Horowitz’s revelations for Spiked, the author Nick Tyrone suggests that when publishers throw their weight about, it’s almost always the cash nexus – and not woke indoctrination – that’s the motivating factor: “It’s as if they think one of their books getting called bad names online will lead to them going out of business in short order.” What’s so strange about that – and it really is when you think about it – is that “every other form of publishing is almost completely powered by controversy”.

Still, whatever their motivations, the fact that publishers do now engage fairly routinely in acts of literary censorship – what the author Lionel Shriver describes as a “quasi-Soviet phenomenon” – is something that troubles Tyrone. Literature is “extremely important to Western culture”, and it is primarily through the novel that “the complexities of human thought and feeling have been communicated over the past several centuries”. It’s true, as he concedes, that “those ideas are often difficult” – but isn’t the fact that they’re problematic precisely why they “need delving into, not shoving away”?

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

Leave a Reply