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.

FAQs on what to do if you are asked to declare your preferred gender pronouns

We have been contacted by many members recently asking what to do about the fact that their employer has asked them to declare their preferred gender pronouns, usually below their name at the bottom of an email or official correspondence. Consequently, we thought it would be useful to pull together some FAQs on this issue.

As with so many free speech issues, there are some legal protections for employees who do not wish to declare their gender pronouns, but there are also some legal justifications employers can cite for trying to get them to do so, namely, the Equality Act 2010. Then again, the Equality Act also provides some protection for employees if they’re being discriminated against on the basis of their religious or philosophical beliefs, such as the belief that sex is binary and fixed. So it’s complicated. The bottom line is that if you have been asked to publicly declare your preferred pronouns by your manager or boss and you believe you might suffer a detriment if you refuse to do so, you should contact a member of our case team.

FSU Comedy Night on 29th June – get your tickets here!

London members, many of whom came to our packed meet-up in March, are encouraged to get tickets to our Summer Special Comedy Night on Wednesday 29th June, where there will be plenty of opportunities to meet other members and the FSU’s staff. The MC for the night will be FSU favourite Dominic Frisby – who you can watch talking about the event here. Dominic will be performing a special set of comedy hits with his band the Gilets Jaunes. Also on the bill is comedy crooner Frank Sanazi, described in Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be joined by his friends Dean Stalin, Spliff Richard and Tom Mones. As this event is also a fund-raiser it is open to the public – get your tickets here.

TRANS – When Ideology Hits Reality: register for our July speakeasy event here!

We are delighted to announce that at our next Online Speakeasy, on Tuesday 12th July at 6.30pm BST, we will be joined by journalist, author and campaigner Helen Joyce. Helen has been instrumental in opening up the debate about sex, gender and women’s rights. Helen will be interviewed by Dr Jan Macvarish, the FSU’s Education and Events Director. Register here to receive the Zoom link.

The FSU launches its Scottish office web page

Back in April, the FSU opened a Scottish office due to overwhelming demand from its Scottish members who are concerned that free speech is in peril north of the border. This week saw the launch of our new Scottish office webpage, which you can access here. Not only does the page showcase the work the FSU is already doing on behalf of its Scottish members, it also acts as a great first point of contact for members – or prospective members – who are concerned that they’re being penalised for exercising their lawful right to free speech and need to get in touch with our case team. As Fraser Hudghton, our Director of Case Management and the Director of FSU Scotland, notes, “There are specific challenges in Scotland with devolved legislation and it’s vitally important Scots know that we are there to provide help when they need it most.”

The FSU’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may have already come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise while exploring free speech issues. During late June and July, Regional Speakeasies will be happening in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and Oxford. You can check out the dates of these in the new Events section of our website, with more details being emailed to all members very shortly. Members are welcome to bring guests, particularly those likely to join the FSU!

Lady of Honour film cancellation – a request for information from our readers

In last week’s newsletter we reviewed press coverage of the decision by Cineworld and Showcase to cancel showings of the film Lady of Heaven in response to aggressive protests by some Muslims who regarded the film as offensive. As we pointed out, in bowing to the demands of a tiny group of religious extremists, they were depriving paying customers of their right to see the film for themselves and make up their own minds about its contents. We’d now like to follow up on that point and want to know whether any of our members, supporters and friends were affected by the protests in Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Blackburn, Birmingham or Stratford. Do please get in touch if you or your family members were prevented from seeing the film by the protests, whether that’s because your local cinema cancelled it, because you felt intimidated or because protestors blocked you from getting in to see it. You can reach us via help@freespeechunion.org or by direct messaging us on Twitter (@SpeechUnion), Facebook (@SpeechUnion) or LinkedIn (“The Free Speech Union”).

‘Legal but harmful’ content and the Online Safety Bill: Toby Young v Chris Philp

In a piece for ConservativeHome this week, FSU General Secretary Toby Young “goes to the heart of what’s wrong” with this Bill: “Not only is the concept of ‘legal but harmful’ content a weaselly way of trying to restrict free speech – of trying to square a circle that cannot be squared – but it is a breach of the fundamental principle of English Common Law that unless something is explicitly prohibited it is permitted.”

It’s well worth a read, not least for the superbly exegetical manner in which Toby accounts for the discrepancy between the FSU’s understanding of the Bill, and the public statements currently being made about the Bill by Chris Philp, the minister tasked with the “nightmarish” job of seeing the legislation through the Commons.

Briefly, the FSU’s position, which Toby set out in an earlier piece for The Critic, is that the Bill will “force social media companies to remove ‘legal but harmful’ content from their platforms”. The bottom line, he added, “is that stuff it is perfectly legal to say and write offline will be prohibited online”. Last week, however, Philp wrote a piece for ConHome in which he denied that, saying social media companies could actually “choose to allow it [i.e., ‘legal but harmful’ content] on their platforms”.

As Toby points out in his recent ConHome piece, Philp was certainly right to say that “while ‘Category 1’ providers will have an obligation to stipulate how they intend to respond to ‘legal but harmful’ content in their terms and conditions, they will not be required to remove it”. But in suggesting that this would leave providers with the ability to “choose” what to do about ‘legal but harmful’ content the minster was “being disingenuous.” That’s because the Bill describes the four different responses available to providers in such a way as to deter them from taking Philp’s “laissez-faire approach”. Briefly, the four choices are: 1. Taking down content; 2. Restricting users’ access to content; 3. Limiting the recommendation or promotion of content; 4. Recommending or promoting content. Choosing simply to “allow” content that is ‘legal but harmful’ to adults on their platforms isn’t one of those four options, and “it is frankly inconceivable that YouTube, Facebook or Twitter will choose option (d) after the Government has designated the content in question ‘harmful’”.

At one point in his article, Philp remarks that the Commons committee currently scrutinising the Bill has heard evidence from a “wide range of people… welcoming this pioneering internet safety law”. Maybe so, Toby says, but as this little legislative contretemps suggests, “had the committee invited the FSU to give evidence – or, indeed, Index on Censorship, Big Brother Watch, or any other pro-free speech organisations – the response would have been less enthusiastic”.

The Online Safety Bill and the spectre of “press regulation via the back door”

The version of the Online Safety Bill that passed through second reading and has now reached committee stage was designed to grant special protection from online censorship to “content of democratic importance and journalistic content”. The fact that the clauses in the Bill that protect such content cannot be overridden by secondary legislation suggests the government is taking great care to avoid a de facto system of state regulation of the press once the Bill reaches the statute book.

These forbiddingly technical points made an appearance in the popular press this week, after it was revealed that Labour MP Kim Leadbeater had put forward an amendment to the Online Safety Bill stating that safeguards in the legislation protecting online media content from being removed should only be open to those newspapers which are “a member of an approved regulator (as defined in section 42 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013)”. Her reasoning, as quoted by the Times, was that “the bill as drafted has far too many loopholes and risks granting legal protection to those wishing to spread harmful content and disinformation in the name of ‘journalism’”.

For the Mail, this was little more than a “cynical plot to put free Press in peril” (also see the Times leading article on 14th May). As the paper went on to explain, the amendment was making a clear allusion to “one of the most controversial aspects of the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards”, namely, “the demand that newspapers should sign up to a state-approved regulator”. All major national newspapers have of course steadfastly refused to sign up to a state-approved regulator on the basis that it would give the government a way of controlling the press. A state-approved regulator, Impress, was set up after the Leveson inquiry, but as the Mail reminded its readers, no major national newspaper is part of what it described, with a wonderfully condescending turn of phrase, as “this set-up”. Instead, most papers have opted to sign up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), “a regulator which is neither controlled nor funded by the State”. It was in this context that Iain Duncan Smith described the amendment as “a Labour attempt to bring in [press] regulation by the back door, and the Government must stand very firm against it” (quoted in the Mail).

Apparently, they did. “Ministers sink threat to free Press” declared the headline to a follow-up piece in the Mail the next day. “Ministers yesterday saw off an attempt to introduce State regulation of the Press by the back door”, the article continued. Maybe so, but later on in that article one finds the following, rather less settled description of the current state of play: “Labour’s Kim Leadbeater, the MP for Batley and Spen, agreed to withdraw the amendment to allow more discussion on the issue.”

Incidentally, one of the points Toby made in his piece in the Critic about the Bill is that it would only need the slightest of tweaks to usher in state regulation of the press – and he described exactly the risk that materialised in the form of Leadbeater’s proposed amendment. One of the great dangers of this Bill is that even if the current Government stands firm on this issue, it has signposted a simple way for a Labour Government to bring in Leveson by the back door.

The “staggering” verdict in Carole Cadwalladr v Arron Banks

The FSU welcomes the verdict in the Arron Banks v Carole Cadwalladr case. As Rebecca Vincent from the press freedom campaign group, Reporters without Borders, said, “It wasn’t just Ms Cadwalladr’s reputation that was at stake, but also the ability of the press to report freely on such issues.” Over in the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill took a similar view, suggesting that “you should never sue people for what they say, even if it is untrue or hurtful”, before urging those more litigiously minded of his readers to counter the “codswallop” of their detractors “in the public square instead”.

That said, it’s not difficult to understand why Brendan O’Neill went on to describe the Judge’s verdict as “pretty staggering”. Arron Banks, the founder of the pro-Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, brought the action in relation to two public utterances made by Cadwalladr. The first came during a TED talk in which she said: “I’m not even going to go into the lies that Arron Banks has told about his covert relationship with the Russian government.” The second utterance took the form of a Tweet that linked to her TED talk and made similar claims. Banks’s case was that both of these utterances were false and defamatory. Mrs Justice Steyn did in fact rule that the first utterance was both false and defamatory of Banks – who has, by the way, always strongly denied the allegations in question – but she accepted Ms Cadwalladr’s “public interest” defence (BBC), rooted in the fact that she could not have known it was false at the time.

So far, so unremarkable, you might think. It’s at this point, however, that, according to Brendan, things started to get a little “weird”. With respect to the tweet, for which there was no public interest defence, and which was also deemed to be false, Mrs Justice Steyn rejected the claim it was damaging to Banks’ reputation on the basis that “it would only have been seen by Cadwalladr’s online fanclub, most of whom will already have thought Banks was dodgy”.

In other words, “It was only Twitter, M’lud.”

The FSU welcomes this legal precedent and looks forward from now on to that argument being applied to all those who use Twitter, not just blue-tick ‘Follow back, pro-European’ (or FBPE) campaigners, activists and journalists.

Cancel culture realises social and racial benefits, say the Open University

According to the Mail, the Open University has established a fruitful working relationship with online training provider FutureLearn and Labour frontbencher David Lammy. The result has been a training programme tailored to the needs of UK university staff and students. Organisers say the course – titled Union Black: Britain’s black cultures and steps to anti-racism – was developed in response to a Universities UK report from 2020 called Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education. It’s proved remarkably popular too, with nearly 100 universities across the UK now offering the course to their staff and students.

According to the Telegraph, course materials suggest that during training sessions, “academics are urged to become ‘active allies’ in advancing racial justice, and are taught about the advantages of ‘cancelling’ people and institutions”. Helpfully, the online module then goes on to explain what those advantages are. “Cancel culture” has, for instance, “been shown to realise benefits” in relation to “racial and social justice”. The course maintains that “holding people or entities accountable for immoral or unacceptable behaviour” is a good thing, as is “promoting collective action to achieve social justice and cultural change through social pressure”.

FSU General Secretary Toby Young wasn’t impressed. “The practice of publicly shaming your intellectual opponents and calling for them to lose their livelihoods is absolutely abhorrent and has no place in universities,” he told the Telegraph. “Academics should be free to dissent from prevailing campus orthodoxies without fear of punishment.” Over in the Mail, Dr Bryn Harris, the FSU’s Chief Legal Counsel confessed himself to be “disappointed, though sadly not surprised”, adding that it was yet another “sad example of UK universities’ inability to be serious about academic freedom and freedom of speech”. 

In fairness, the course does concede that any academics wishing to dust off their pitchforks should first engage in “due diligence before effectively ‘cancelling’ someone”. But given that – as the Telegraph points out – participants are told elsewhere on the course that “white superiority is embedded in the linguistic and cultural psychology of the English language” and that, as a result, it is “covertly woven” into all of our minds, one wonders how “due diligence” can possibly be performed without ‘unconscious biases’ of various kinds affecting the process. Perhaps Morse Code, silent Zumba or Semaphore might offer more socially just, equitable alternatives to the endemically racist English language.

Areo magazine – take a read and show your support!

Areo is an independent digital journal with free speech at the heart of its mission. Named for John Milton’s 1644 Areopagitica, a pioneering call for freedom of the press, Areo publishes on politics, society, culture and the arts, fearlessly giving a voice to heterodox thinkers at a time when cancel culture and illiberalism seek to narrow the range of debate. One such heterodox thinker is Richard Dawkins, who calls Areo “the place to go for unintimidated sanity in a bullying mad world”. FSU supporters looking for a bit of “unintimidated sanity” can read Areo here and support their Patreon here to get exclusive content from contributors like Dawkins and Stephen Pinker.

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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