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.

TRANS – When Ideology Meets 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 Helen Joyce. Helen is a long-time staff writer for The Economist. Her book, Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, was published by OneWorld in July 2021 and became an immediate bestseller, named by the Times, Spectator and Observer as one of their books of the year. In early 2022 Helen took a leave of absence from the Economist, with the editor-in-chief’s blessing, to work with start-up human-rights organisation Sex Matters, which campaigns for clarity about the two sexes, male and female, in law and in life. Helen will be interviewed by Dr Jan Macvarish, the FSU’s Education and Events Director. Please 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 exploring free speech issues. During 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!

Comedy Night – a big thank you to everyone who attended!

Thank you to all those who came to this week’s Comedy Night in London – we really enjoyed meeting you all. It was a great night for free-thinking comedy and we raised a good amount for the FSU coffers, meaning we can now do even more to defend free speech. Congratulations also to the four raffle winners. For members around the country, do look out for our Regional Speakeasies in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and oxford. You can see all our events here, but you’ll need to get the links to register from our regular FSU Events emails.

Speakers’ Corner reaches its 150th birthday

This week saw the 150th anniversary of the Parks Regulation Act, a piece of legislation that granted legal protection to that small portion of Hyde Park we know today as ‘Speakers’ Corner’. FSU General Secretary Toby Young was invited to the birthday celebrations for a site that’s become something of a symbol for the importance of free speech and freedom of expression in this country. As it happens, for media purposes Toby ended up addressing a sizeable crowd not just once, but twice (you can watch a clip here). Given Speakers’ Corner’s rich cultural history of impassioned debate, dissent, protest and vulgarity, it seemed entirely appropriate that during the second of those addresses Toby had to contend with a good deal of heckling. “Just as well speech is free, innit, because no one would pay to hear this rubbish,” said one, according to his piece in the Spectator about the experience.

Still, those parts of his speech that were audible were well worth listening to. “In spite of all the recent assaults on free speech,” he said, “we should take the time to celebrate the fact that this marvellous place has existed and has provided a platform for people with a huge range of different views to speak for 150 years.”

Later, Toby joined Mark Steyn on GB News to discuss the state of free speech in the UK. “Are we losing the habits of free speech?” Mark asked. Arguably, free speech was on a much surer footing 150 years ago, Toby said. The most celebrated defence of free speech ever written, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, had only been published 13 years before Speakers’ Corner was given legal protection, and the general support for free speech – indeed, for the philosophical foundations of free speech – among the British intelligentsia at that time was much greater than it is now.

The day before the 150th anniversary, the Metropolitan Police decided to mark the occasion in their own inimitable way by arresting Hatun Tash, an ex-Muslim turned evangelical Christian (Christian Concern) and member of the FSU. Hatun regularly debates the Qur’an at Speakers’ Corner, usually at great personal risk. In May of last year, for instance, a mob surrounded her screaming for her blood. In July, another mob dragged her to the ground. Later that month, she was stabbed. In October, she was punched in the face.

Footage of the most recent incident shows Hatun being attacked, robbed and then surrounded by an angry group, before the police move in to arrest her and drag her away in an arm-lock while the crowd cheers gleefully. Having strip searched her and kept her in a cell overnight, they then released her without charge. As birthday presents go, it probably wasn’t quite what Speakers’ Corner was expecting from the Met.

According to Hatun, whom Toby bumped into at Speakers’ Corner after her release, one of the things the police said to her by way of explanation was that some of the people in the park thought that her t-shirt, which reproduced one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, was offensive. “So what?” you might think. Being offensive isn’t against the law – at least, not yet.

In the wake of Hatun’s stabbing last year, the Mail reported that the Met was actively reviewing how to police Speakers’ Corner. If its new policy is to defuse tensions by forcibly denying citizens’ their right to freedom of expression simply because a mob finds what they have to say offensive, then free speech in the country of John Stuart Mill’s birth really is – as Toby put it on Mark Steyn’s show – “on life support”.

It’s also worth noting that, other than Toby’s piece for the Spectator, his appearance on GB News and a few wobbly, handheld videos uploaded to YouTube, the media have had nothing to say about this latest infringement of a Christian’s right to free speech and freedom of expression. Sometimes that which is left unreported can reveal as much about a society as that which makes the headlines.

We have written to the acting commissioners of the Metropolitan Police about the arrest of Hatun Tash, a letter you can read here. We’ve asked for a justification or, if they cannot provide one, an apology.

Lord Frost reacts to an IEA report on the Online Safety Bill

In the week that the House of Commons Public Bill Committee tasked with scrutinising the Online Safety Bill valiantly sat down to undertake its seventeenth sitting, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) published a new briefing paper titled An Unsafe Bill: How the Online Safety Bill threatens free speech, innovation and privacy. It’s well worth a read (as are the summaries that its co-authors, Matthew Lesh and Victoria Hewson, wrote for the Telegraph and Times). Specifically in relation to the Bill’s likely impact on freedom of expression online, the IEA briefing echoes many of the points the FSU has made in previous publications (here, here and here).

Responding to the IEA’s findings for the Mail, FSU Advisory Council member Lord Frost was distinctly unimpressed. This “unsatisfactory” and “unconservative” Bill, he said, contained so many flaws that “it is hard to know where to start”. The peer did, however, go on to single out for criticism the fact that the Bill will discourage platforms from permitting the expression of views that the Secretary of State considers to be harmful, even if that speech is legal. As a result, he warned, the Bill will likely “pander to the views of the perennially offended – those who think the Government should protect them from ever encountering anything they disagree with”, before adding that the Tories “should not be putting this view into law”. The best thing the Government could do, he concluded, would be to slim it down (a view echoed in the Lords this week by Lord Strathcarron). This would allow it to “proceed rapidly with the genuinely uncontroversial aspects and consign the rest where it belongs – the wastepaper basket”.

According to a recent article in ConHome, Lord Frost is hoping to become an MP, and – who knows – perhaps even take up a ministerial portfolio. In that light, it’s interesting to reflect on the results of a recent YouGov poll of 982 Conservative Party members commissioned by the Legal to Say, Legal to Type campaign (Guido). Four in five (79%) believe people should be able to post things online that are offensive but legal, and that speech online should not be more restricted than offline. A majority (51%) also worry that Ofcom, the proposed regulator, will not be impartial. In addition, when asked to rank issues relating to online safety by priority for the government, just 3% said the government should prioritise comments which are offensive but do not break any laws.

The last prospective parliamentary candidate to find himself so in tune with the thoughts of the Conservative Party’s grassroots members while seeking to return to the Commons was Boris Johnson – now, of course, the Prime Minster.

“Reflect” on your relationship to Advance HE, Michelle Donelan asks universities

Universities minister Michelle Donelan this week wrote to higher education providers in England to ask them to “consider carefully” whether participation in schemes like Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter is compatible with free speech and academic freedom principles (Times, Telegraph, Times Higher). There is, she writes, “growing concern that a ‘chilling effect’ on university campuses leaves students, staff and academics unable to freely express their lawful views without fear of repercussion”. In particular, university membership and participation in external assurance and benchmarking diversity schemes like the Race Equality Charter, operated by Advance HE, are described by the Minister as potentially being “in tension with [the creation of] an environment that promotes and protects free speech”. Having acknowledged that universities and other HE providers are “autonomous institutions”, and that decisions over whether or not to join such schemes are “up to each individual provider”, she goes on to “ask” those institutions to “reflect carefully” as to whether membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing “an HE environment in which free speech and academic freedom can flourish”.

Understood in its proper context, the letter is a devilishly clever piece of rhetoric with the potential to force HE providers to ‘choose sides’, as it were (on this point see Wonk HE here and here). “Autonomous institutions”, as Ms Donelan is at pains to point out, are as free to take or leave the government’s advice as they are free to take or leave membership schemes run by bodies like Advance HE. But where they do not end up standing on the side of free speech – the Government’s side, as Ms Donelan would see it – and instead continue to participate in membership schemes run by bodies like Advance HE, the minister will from now on understand them to be making an active and very deliberate choice not to do so.

But then, if the Government stands for academic freedom, what exactly does Advance HE stand for? “Egregious wokery,” according to one anonymous Government source (Telegraph). Not that Advance HE is likely to adopt that as its marketing strapline anytime soon – to them, the Race Equality Charter simply represents a “framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students”. (Although here it’s probably worth reading this piece by Dr. Wanjiru Njoya and Professor Doug Stokes, both members of the FSU’s Advisory Council, in which they point out that such barriers are imaginary.)

And yet it isn’t just anonymous Government sources who are expressing concerns that a desire on the part of universities to find favour with Advance HE is behind moves such as overhauling curricula to remove classic texts that may now be deemed offensive. In a recent letter to the Education Secretary, for instance, 25 Conservative MPs and peers claimed that the Race Equality Charter programme, which now counts almost 100 universities and colleges as paid-up members, encourages “identity politics” on campuses (Telegraph). MPs in the Conservative Parliamentary Party’s Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs also believe that Advance HE’s influence, including its push for universities to “decolonise” their curricula, is leading to initiatives such as the use of “content notes” or “trigger warnings” to forewarn students about the subject matter of course texts, enabling them “to take the necessary steps to engage safely and with minimal psychological distress”.

As the Telegraph reported last month, of the 23 universities who have signed up to the diversity scheme, 20 of them – including the University of Warwick and Imperial College London – have explicitly said they are “decolonising” courses, while the remaining three have pledged to “liberate”, “diversify” or introduce “compulsory race equality” to their syllabuses. As MPs have pointed out, this rather damning fact casts some doubt on Advance HE’s recent insistence that the charter does not require higher education institutions to decolonise their curricula in order to win an award. (Telegraph)

The FSU believes Ms Donelan is right to challenge the relationship that charities like Advance HE have with universities, and, in particular, the sway they appear to hold over the nature, style and content of academic teaching at those institutions.

Specifically, we believe the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill – which has just passed the second reading stage in the House of Lords – should be amended to specify the right of academic staff to be consulted on and express criticism of the curriculum choices of its institution, including where a university makes an ideological decision to ‘decolonise’ its curricula. This should form part of a broader commitment to enshrine in the HEB the fundamental right of academics to criticise the policies, procedures and decisions of their employers. After all, as Donelan rightly suggests, they’re independent bodies.

This amendment is one of seven that we’ve proposed in our latest briefing paper on the Bill (which you can read here). Over the next few weeks, we’re looking forward to engaging with the FSU’s allies in both chambers of Parliament to ensure that the final version of the Bill makes its new protections for freedom of speech and academic freedom even more robust.

Halifax tells its customers where to go if they don’t like its staff pronoun badges

Preferred pronouns began their long march through the institutions some time ago, but it’s only in recent years that they’ve moved from “the preserve of over-enthusiastic Student Union reps or tie-dyed Labour Party conference attendees”, as Joanna Williams put it in Spiked, to the corporate mainstream. Asda, for instance, were an ‘early adopter’ in 2020. Last year, diversity managers at HSBC and Marks & Spencer also began introducing staff pronoun badges as part of a nationwide drive to help start what M&S’s food PR manager described at the time as “very necessary conversations around non-binary experiences”. Not to be outdone, taxpayer-backed NatWest announced that it was to trial a 2022 branch uniform that would give employees the option of adding their preferred pronouns on to new name badges that would be made not from plastic but – wait for it – environmentally friendly bamboo.

No doubt feeling that Pride month was the perfect opportunity to catch up with the virtue-signalling corporate crowd, Halifax this week tweeted an image of one of its new staff pronoun badges in a post that read: “Pronouns matter. #It’sAPeopleThing.” The attached photograph showed a badge attached to the lapel of ‘Gemma’, with the pronouns ‘she/her/hers’ written beneath – the possessive (‘hers’) option presumably added to the standard nominative (she) and accusative (her) forms just in case female Gemma ever decides she wants to relate to her workplace stationary, coffee cup or uniform via an entirely different gender identity – ‘male’, say, or ‘pangender’.

According to Halifax, the scheme “is completely optional” (as quoted in the Evening Standard), and the bank is “offering [its] colleagues the choice because we want to create a safe and accepting environment that opens the conversation around gender identity”. It’s hard to read that statement without feeling that a hint of moral compulsion starts to creep in towards the end.

A few hours later, and presumably in response to the online criticism picked up by various media outlets (Independent, Telegraph, ITV, BBC), Halifax released another tweet. Although intended for customers, its tone, tenor and underlying message surely can’t have been missed by any staff members who may have been toying with the idea of opting out of their employer’s “completely optional” scheme. As statement’s go it’s not quite up there with the Daily News’s infamous 1975 rendering of President Ford’s response to New York City’s request for a Federal Government bailout (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) but it is perhaps the latter-day, passive-aggressive woke equivalent: “We strive for inclusion, equality and quite simply in doing what’s right. If you disagree with our values, you’re welcome to close your account.”

Close your account, hand in your notice – whatever. #It’sAPeopleThing.

Writing about the sense of compulsion that seems to linger around this and other, similar schemes, Joanna Williams points out that staff who refuse to comply “risk being singled out, coming to the attention of managers, sent on diversity training sessions or accused of prejudice”. And yet those are all activist strategies; that is, they depend on an employer deliberately going after recalcitrant employees. Surely, though, a policy of passive neglect is just as likely. It’s certainly difficult to believe that staff wishing to opt out, and, by implication, wishing to do what Halifax has made clear it regards as “the wrong thing” – perpetuating an unsafe, exclusionary environment that stifles important conversations around gender identity – will be getting any good news in the firm’s next round of promotions.

Still, anyone who feels brave enough to want to push back if their employer asks them to declare their preferred gender pronouns, might like to take a look at the Free Speech Union’s new FAQ on the issue 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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