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.

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

London members are encouraged to get tickets to our Summer Special Comedy Night on Wednesday 29th June (here), where there will be plenty of opportunities to meet other members and the FSU’s staff. As this event is a fundraiser, it’s open to the public – so do please encourage friends and family to come along. You can share the Eventbrite link with them here.

We can also exclusively reveal that our raffle prizes on the night will include the chance to go for a pint with the FSU’s General Secretary – Toby Young – a guided tour of the GB News studios in Paddington, and a collection of books curated by our guest acts on the night. We’ll also be unveiling our new ‘Unmute Yourself’ FSU badges – surely this summer’s must-have lapel accessory for any self-respecting free speech warrior – plus a selection of specially designed tote bags, featuring free speech quotes from the likes of George Orwell and Benjamin Franklin.

The MC on the night will be Dominic Frisby, who has very kindly recorded this video to tell our members more about the event. Dominic will be performing a special set of comedy hits with his band The Gilets Jaunes – you can watch a clip of him reminding the audience what his preferred pronouns are during a Comedy Club performance here. Also on the bill is comedy crooner Frank Sanazi, described in the UK comedy guide Chortle as “the extravagantly offensive love-child of Adolf Hitler and Frank Sinatra”. Frank will be fresh from Glastonbury Festival, and readying himself for an attack on the Edinburgh Fringe. You can catch part of his set here.

The link to book tickets is 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, will be with journalist, campaigner and author of the Sunday Times Bestseller TRANS: When Ideology Hits Reality, 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’s forthcoming Regional Speakeasies

Some of you may already have come along to our in-person meet-ups in pubs and bars, where members can socialise while discussing 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!

FSU writes to Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan

The FSU has this week written to the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, and the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, to thank them for introducing two essential amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that we campaigned for: first, removing the caveat “within their field of expertise” from Clause 1, so the new free speech protections apply to academics regardless of whether they’re speaking or writing about something within their field of expertise or not; and second, making it harder for “security costs” to be cited by universities or student unions to justify no-platforming a controversial speaker. We were also pleased to see Ms Donelan confirm in the House that temporary and visiting academic staff will be shielded by the Bill’s additional protections, another thing we’ve been campaigning for.

In his capacity as General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, Toby Young wrote to the Education Secretary and Universities Minister this week to convey his appreciation. You can read his letter in full here, but it’s worth quoting the conclusion in full:

While we may disagree on certain points – we are a non-partisan organisation – we are united in our common belief that freedom of expression must be protected and promoted at all costs. We will continue to work alongside you and your ministers to achieve exactly that. Freedom of speech is the foundational value on which all our other freedoms depend.

You can read our briefing on the Bill here

National coverage of the FSU’s victory in its battle with Worcester College, Oxford

The Telegraph carried news of a huge victory for the Free Speech Union this week in its long-running battle with Worcester College, Oxford. The FSU has “stood shoulder to shoulder with Christian Concern throughout this dispute,” General Secretary Toby Young told the paper.

This is the news that the college has admitted it “misled” students after capitulating to an activist mob back in 2021 and cancelling a Christian event that had been due to take place on its campus. Worcester College, run by David Isaac, the former Chair of LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall (2003-12) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2016-20), had previously apologised to students for hosting a Christian Concern training camp – known as the Wilberforce Academy.  Mr Isaac then proceeded to cancel a second booking after a small number of students complained that they had been “distressed” by the presence of the Academy on campus over the summer months. In what the Mail described at the time as an example of cancel culture in Britain’s universities, Worcester College initially emailed students to acknowledge that the booking “was a serious failure that has caused significant distress” whilst promising to use the proceeds from the event for “diversity initiatives”.

Toby first wrote to Mr Isaac in September 2021, pointing out that to exclude a group from holding an event on the College’s premises because of its Christian beliefs would be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. “Under section 29(1) of that Act,” he said, “Worcester’s response to student distaste at the Wilberforce Academy seems to amount, quite openly, to a policy of discrimination.” You can read Toby’s email, along with the Provost’s response, here.

In March of this year, an independent review found “no evidence” for the allegations made by a fellow of the College, that “aggressive leafleting” had taken place and that conference attendees had made “unsolicited approaches” to staff and students to discuss controversial opinions on LGBT conversation therapy (Telegraph). As the review made clear, the College acted on these complaints despite staff and students being unable to locate copies of the leaflets, and despite Christian Concern stating that no leaflets had in fact been distributed.

Following the report’s publication, Toby wrote again to Mr Isaac again, asking him to retract his apology, and withdraw the ban he imposed on further bookings by the Academy. “We continue to stand by Christian Concern,” he wrote, “and will provide whatever legal and financial assistance we deem appropriate should this matter escalate.” You can read that letter in full here).

After these warnings that its stance was potentially discriminatory, the College has this week admitted that it was “misleading to suggest that Conference delegates or representatives of Christian Concern acted improperly in an email to students in September 2021”.

In a joint statement issued with Christian Concern, both parties reaffirmed their mutual commitment “to the right to freedom of speech and religious belief and the dignity of all people”. In a world where “differing views are strongly and sincerely held”, the statement added, “it is important to come together and listen to each other. To that end, Worcester has invited Christian Concern to speak at a debate which will take place as soon as can be arranged.”

As Toby pointed out in the Telegraph, “the mistake Worcester College made was to immediately capitulate to the demands of an activist mob and ban a group from its premises without properly investigating the allegations against it.” He went on: “We see this kind of institutional cowardice again and again, particularly in the higher education sector, usually motivated by a desire for a quiet life. The way to force these institutions to take their responsibility to uphold free speech more seriously is to make it clear that organisations like ours will create an almighty fuss if they don’t.”

Students want more restrictions on free speech, says a recent HEPI poll

Students have “become less liberal in their approach to freedom of expression in recent years”, according to a study published this week (the Times, Mail and Guardian). A poll of 1,019 UK undergraduates by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests that they want more restrictions on free speech than their predecessors who came of age around the time of the Brexit referendum. Thirty-nine per cent said students’ unions should “ban all speakers that cause offence” – more than double the 16% found last time the survey was undertaken in 2016. More than one-third (36%) of the respondents also believe academics should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students”, up from 15% in 2016. And when presented with the phrase “if you debate an issue like sexism or racism, you make it acceptable”, the proportion of students expressing some agreement doubled to 35% (up from 17% in 2016) – and the proportion expressing complete disagreement halved (down from 38% to 20%).

As the report’s author, Nick Hillman, remarks, it is “abundantly clear” that “a high proportion of students have a very different conception of academic freedom and free speech norms than earlier generations and from many of those who legislate, regulate or govern UK higher education institutions”. Hillman charitably attributes this decline in support for free speech to the tough time students have had in the past six years – Covid, industrial action, the ‘cost-of-living-crisis’ – leading to a preoccupation with ‘safety’. Maybe so, Toby Young concedes in the Spectator, “but surely the main cause is that organisations such as Stonewall and Advance HE have successfully infected British universities with hard-left identitarian ideology under the guise of promoting ‘diversity and inclusion’”.

The metaphor of infection is an interesting one – pursuing it, we might usefully ask how the malady ever managed to ‘take hold’ of its campus ‘hosts’ in the first place. Perhaps the beginnings of an answer are to be found in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind (2018). As its title suggests, the book is mainly concerned with the situation in the US, but it may well shed light on some of what is happening in the UK, too. The book charts the emergence of a culture of “safetyism” among so-called ‘iGen’ (i.e., the cohort of kids born from 1995 onwards). Coddled by parents while children, their lives subsequently delimited, scheduled and managed by a panoply of well-meaning, middle-class adults during adolescence, they arrive at early adulthood immature, unprepared for university life and incapable of resolving conflicts and difficult situations on their own. Challenging ideas, people, encounters, concepts, situations, subsequently come to be misrecognized as hostile and threatening to their safety or wellbeing. Haidt and Lukianoff’s claim is that, aided by highly risk-averse university administrators, iGens go on to establish campus cultures in which their instinctive, censorial impulses (“X offends me – no-one has the right to offend me”) are laundered through a style of therapeutic language that evokes such vulnerability it remains forever immune to scholarly criticism or intellectual challenge (“X threatens my wellbeing – no-one has the right to damage my health”).

Amongst the recommendations Hillman makes to universities looking to challenge the free speech crisis on campus are balancing controversial speakers with other speakers with different viewpoints, supporting students’ unions to foster an open culture and reassessing formal procedures to ensure they are sufficiently robust. If Haidt and Lukianoff are right, it’s going to take a lot more than that.

The Government presents plans for a UK Bill of Rights

On Wednesday (22nd June), the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab unveiled a major overhaul of human rights laws with the draft UK Bill of Rights. It will effectively replace New Labour’s 1998 Human Rights Act, which incorporated the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights into UK law with the result that British courts have since had to take into account rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. According to the Telegraph, the bill will “make Parliament and the UK’s Supreme Court the ‘ultimate arbiters’ on whether and how to implement European court judgments”. As if to emphasise the need for the legislation, last week the (ECHR) granted an emergency injunction (a so-called rule 39 interim order) for a passenger on the government’s first flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda until a High Court challenge on the legality of the government’s policy has been decided – this despite Britain’s High Court, three Court of Appeal judges and the Supreme Court giving the plane the green light for take off (Telegraph).

Yet as the Justice Secretary himself was quick to point out in an op-ed for the Sun, curbing abuses of the human rights system is just one of the bill’s two “fundamental aims”. The other is to “strengthen traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech” – “under attack”, as he put it, “from expanding privacy law to stifling political correctness”.

With the cancellation of the Kigali-bound flight still fresh in the memory, it was perhaps inevitable that in the media – and in the Chamber following Dominic Raab’s statement to the House – attention would focus on the questions the bill raises in relation to where the locus of judicial decision-making power on human-rights issues will lie once the legislation reaches the statute book.

Some of the press coverage was, as Luke Gittos put it for Spiked, “hysterical”. The bill is racist, claimed some (Independent). It takes “a hatchet to the single most powerful rights tool this country has ever had”, claimed another (Guardian). Not so, shot back Lord Bellamy QC for ConHome. “This isn’t about rolling back on fundamental freedoms and protections in our country,” he said, adding that the UK remains committed to the ECHR. The issue is “simply that some provisions in the [Human Rights] Act have been interpreted as a duty to follow Strasbourg case law closely – leading to rulings that many people in our country invariably would not recognise as part of human rights”. This “undermines public confidence in the system and tends to give human rights a bad name”, which is why the Bill of Rights needs to “press the reset button” and make Parliament and the UK’s Supreme Court once again the “ultimate arbiters” on whether and how to implement European court judgments.

On the issue of the bill’s other fundamental aim – “strengthen[ing] traditional UK rights such as freedom of speech” – it was left to the Mail and the Press Gazette to report that it would give whistle-blowers “extra confidence to speak to journalists”, with courts forced to meet “a higher bar before demanding that a journalist disclose a source’s identity”. At present, a court can order journalists to reveal their sources if there are grounds to show it would prevent a crime or is in the interests of justice or national security. An extra test will be added to the bill, ensuring that “a journalist will have to reveal a source only if there are exceptional and compelling reasons to consider it is in the public interest”.

According to the Telegraph, ministers hope the bill will become law by the end of the year. The FT wasn’t so sure about that, warning that it “may face a choppy passage through parliament” – a view subsequently endorsed on Tuesday when the BBC’s Political Editor, Chris Mason, reported no fewer than four parliamentary committees already demanding the plans be “subject to the fullest amount of public and parliamentary scrutiny to ensure their appropriateness, practicality, and longevity”.

In-house professional services now available to all FSU members at a discount

Thor Holt is our in-house counsellor who provides pro bono psychological support to members when they’re in the eye of a cancellation storm. But he also provides other professional trusted counsel, such as finding investment for businesses in need, guiding stressed medics and lawyers through professional exams and helping people from all walks of life develop confident public speaking skills. You can contact him on WhatsApp +44 7906 321593 or on LinkedIn here.

Fact and fiction – join Transgender Trend’s founder for a literary fundraiser!

At a time when it is risky to question any aspect of gender identity ideology for fear of being accused of ‘transphobia’, Transgender Trend are hosting a fundraising event to “celebrate the pioneers who have had the courage to write and publish books on the issue” and it will feature, among other speakers, Professor Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans and Milli Hill. Transgender Trend’s founder, Stephanie Davies-Arai, says that she has hand-picked books that, for her, “have facilitated public awareness and debate and sent a powerful message: authors have a right to freedom of thought and the subject of gender identity is not exempt from critique”.

You can book tickets for the event 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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