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.

Regional Speakeasies

The final Regional Speakeasy in our Summer Season of events will take place next Wednesday, 27th July, in Brighton with GB News presenter Inaya Folarin Iman as our special guest speaker. Please register on Eventbrite (here) to secure your place and do invite friends and colleagues who are interested in finding out more about the Free Speech Union.

The FSU’s five-point free speech manifesto

The results of an independent opinion poll commissioned by the FSU show that people strongly support our five-point free speech manifesto (available here). The headline finding is that only 2% of the public strongly agree that the Government is doing a good job of standing up for free speech. Among 25-49-year-olds, that number falls to 1%.

In light of our poll, the FSU launched a campaign to get supporters who are also members of the Conservative Party to use our new campaigning tool to email the candidates in the Conservative leadership election and urge them to do more to protect free speech. After all, one of them will be our next Prime Minister, and this could be our best chance of extracting a commitment from them that they’ll do everything in their power to defend free speech when they’re in 10 Downing Street.

As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 2,500 emails had been sent via our online campaigning tool, and it’s already clear that the campaign is making a real difference to the tone and tenor of the leadership contest. Thanks to the pressure the FSU and its members have been able to exert during the first full week of campaigning, free speech issues that might otherwise have been overlooked are now being forced to the forefront of debate.

Take the issue of non-crime hate incidents (NCHIs). In the email we urged Conservative Party members to send to the candidates using a campaigning tool, we asked them to “end the investigation and recording of NCHIs by the police and [to] delete all those that are still sitting on people’s records.” A few days after we launched our campaign, leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch warned that the police in England and Wales were logging tens of thousands of NCHIs each year and announced that if she won the contest she would take “whatever steps are necessary to end the recording of non-crime hate incidents”, stop the police intervening in Twitter spats and get them back to investigating burglaries and anti-social behaviour. (Mail, Reclaim the Net, Unherd). The next day, Rishi Sunak set out his agenda for law and order and made clear that “our police forces must be fully focused on fighting actual crime in people’s neighbourhoods and not policing bad jokes on Twitter”. (Telegraph).

It seems unlikely that this esoteric policing technique would have become such a prominent issue in the leadership contest were it not for the volume of emails on the topic that have relentlessly been pinging into the candidates’ inboxes over the past week.

Another action our template email urged the candidates to commit to was “ditching those clauses in the Online Safety Bill that pose a threat to freedom of expression”. To be sure, as Madeline Grant pointed out for the Telegraph, Ms Badenoch was clearly willing to challenge Tory orthodoxies, including the Online Safety Bill and its alarming free speech implications, right from the very start of the leadership contest. But the final two Tory leadership candidates – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – have only recently expressed reservations about the Bill’s ‘legal but harmful’ clause.

During this week’s Spectator magazine hustings, for instance, it was put to Rishi Sunak that the Bill would create a new category of speech to be censored – legal but harmful – and that politicians would end up deciding what is harmful. “Would you protect free speech by stopping this from happening?” asked the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman. “I do want to make sure that we are… protecting free speech and the legal but harmful bit is the one that I would want to spend some time as Prime Minister going over and making sure that we’re getting that bit exactly right,” Rishi said. “I can’t tell you what the right answer at the end of that process will be, but I think it’s fair that people have raised some concerns about that and its impact on free speech. And I think it’s right that those concerns are properly addressed.”

The same question was then put to Liz Truss, who made the following remarks: “The principles I believe in are the protection of free speech, but also making sure that we’re not exposing under-18s to harm online… So I will want to look at that and make sure that that is in the right place, as well as protecting freedom of speech, freedom of the press. I’m a great believer that those are core freedoms that a healthy society depends on.”

Over the coming weeks we want to extract further, more substantive commitments to protect free speech from both the remaining leadership candidates. If you’re a Conservative Party member and you haven’t already done so, please use our new campaigning tool to send them an email. If you’re a Conservative Party member and have already used the tool, remember that the template can be tweaked to accommodate whatever free speech issues you’d now like to raise with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

No-platforming at record levels across UK university campuses 

The Office for Students warned this week that “freedom of speech is at risk of being stifled on campuses” (Times Higher). A survey carried out by the universities watchdog found that a record number of speakers and events were rejected last year. Out of 19,407 external speaker requests or events on English campuses in academic year 2020-21, 193 were rejected, compared with 94 in 2019-20, 141 in 2018-19 and 53 in 2017-18. (Evening Standard, Mail, Times).

As FSU General Secretary Toby Young pointed out to the Telegraph, these figures are “just the tip of the iceberg”. It’s a nice analogy. The media always seems to focus on the number of no-platforming episodes per year, as if that figure were the totality of the issue faced.

It isn’t, of course, not by a long stretch – but that type of data all too easily plays into the hands of those who want to suggest that cancel culture is indeed little more than a myth. The Independent demonstrated exactly how to pursue that particular line of argument this week. Ignoring the increase in the overall number of cancellations reported by the OfS, it focused instead on the fact that “fewer than 1% of speaker requests or events were rejected last academic year”. Here was proof positive, claimed the paper’s expert source, General Secretary of the UCU, Jo Grady, that “the Tory narrative of a free speech crisis caused by oversensitive students is totally at odds with the evidence”, and that the Government are “whipping up a phony culture war”.

Certainly, it’s true that if all you ever chose to look at were the data on no-platforming, the free speech crisis in Britain’s universities might well come to seem a little ‘aerated’. Previous research by the OfS, for instance, found that of 62,000 requests by students for external speaker approval in England in 2017–18, only 53 were rejected. Similarly, research from WonkHE found that of almost 10,000 events involving an external speaker at an English university in 2019-20, just six were cancelled. Crisis, what crisis?

And yet the free speech problem at UK universities goes far deeper – indeed, it can’t really be seen or properly understood until more nuanced, qualitative data is considered. That’s why Toby’s “iceberg” analogy is so apt. As he made clear to the Telegraph, over the past year alone the Free Speech Union has helped hundreds of students and academics, “all of whom have got into trouble for expressing nonconformist views or pushing back against ideological orthodoxy on campus, whether by refusing to do unconscious bias training, criticising their university’s links with Stonewall, objecting to the decolonisation of the curriculum, or daring to point out that George Floyd had a criminal record”.

And what about the countless other incidents that occur but never come to the attention of organisations like the FSU? They too must surely have a ‘chilling’ effect on the actions of all who come to hear of them through the academic grapevine. As FSU Advisory Council member and Reader in Philosophy at Cambridge University, Arif Ahmed, attested in a piece for Spiked: “I have attended conferences on the Gender Recognition Act that have had to be held in secret locations on university premises, unadvertised, with a closed guest list. I have met academics who live in daily fear of violence for expressing a widely held scepticism about Stonewall – and their universities do nothing to protect them. I know of 18-year-olds being ostracised within weeks of starting at university because someone dug up something they had written questioning this or that orthodoxy. All of this is happening in universities in Britain today.”

Understood in this broader context, it is, as Dr Ahmed concludes, “virtually impossible to deny with a straight face that there is a free-speech problem at universities”.

FSU research on proposed NI Hate Crime Bill in the media spotlight

General Secretary Toby Young appeared on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show to discuss the results of an opinion poll commissioned by the FSU. As reported by the Belfast Newsletter, the poll revealed little public appetite in Northern Ireland for a Hate Crime Bill and considerable anxiety that it would have a chilling effect on free speech.

Back in 2019, the Northern Irish Justice Department commissioned Judge Desmond Marrinan to carry out a review of hate crime legislation. Following publication of the Marrinan Review in December 2020, the Department immediately accepted 22 of his 34 recommendations, including those that would: apply a statutory aggravation model to all criminal offences, whereby any offence motivated by hostility towards protected groups is punished more severely; include transgender identity as a protected characteristic; frame legislation to allow more groups to be added to the ‘protected’ list in future; extend the ‘stirring up hatred’ offence so it applied to all the groups on the ‘protected’ list; and implement the proposals in the UK Government’s 2019 Online Harms White Paper to prohibit online content that is ‘legal but harmful’. As we point out in our latest briefing paper (here), the Marrinan proposals appear to have been heavily influenced by Scotland’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act – a piece of legislation that FSU Scottish Advisory Council member Jamie Gillies recently referred to as an “authoritarian mess” (Spiked).

Phase one of a public consultation designed to inform the development of a new Hate Crime Bill closed earlier this year, with phase two issuing in due course. As Toby pointed out on The Nolan Show, one of the things the FSU poll did was confirm the existence in Northern Ireland of a ‘demographic divergence’ that first became apparent in the consultation exercise. Whereas activists and campaigners tend to support the idea of legislating against ‘hate speech’ to make society more ‘inclusive’ and ‘respectful’, individual members of the public – in both the consultation exercise and our polling data – tend to express concern about the impact of such legislation on freedom of speech and expression.

Remarkably, the Department dealt with this ‘divergence’ by consistently adopting recommendations opposed by the public and endorsed by activists. “So what was the point of running a consultation process?” a perplexed interviewer asked Toby at one point. “So they can say that they consulted about it,” he replied, rounding off an interactional exchange that would surely have graced any episode of Yes Minister.

Worryingly, phase two of the consultation looks set to consider what Toby went on to describe as “even more draconian and illiberal” recommendations. “There is”, he explained, “currently an exception within the Public Order Act whereby you cannot be prosecuted for stirring up hatred against a member of a protected group in the privacy of your own home. One proposal in phase two is to scrap that defence, so that if you say something supposedly hateful to your child at the dinner table, you could be prosecuted and your child summoned as a witness in a court as part of the prosecution.” Another proposal is to make “transmisogyny” a hate crime, such that if someone were to say that they didn’t think transwomen should compete against women in women’s sport, “they might then be liable for prosecution on account of having committed a transmisogynistic hate crime”.

The concern now is that this final phase of the consultation will follow a similar pattern to phase one, with the public expressing concerns about the proposals, activist groups cheerily endorsing them as useful tools for the persecution of their opponents, and the Department then siding with the activists.

It’s worth noting that the Marrinan Review was commissioned, and its proposals accepted, by officials within Northern Ireland’s Justice Department when Northern Ireland didn’t have a Government. There was no Government in Northern Ireland between 2017 and 2020 and there hasn’t been one since February of this year, when First Minister Paul Givan resigned. How can it be democratic for unelected bureaucrats to make such sweeping changes to the law?

The FSU writes to Lancaster City Council regarding the no-platforming of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown

We’ve written to the Leader of Lancaster City Council, Councillor Jackson, urging her to reconsider the cancellation of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown’s forthcoming performance in Morecambe. As the Mail reported earlier this month, the controversial 77-year-old comedian was due to perform at the council-run Platform venue in August, but the show was cancelled after a total of 59 people signed a petition calling for the council to ban the performance.

As we pointed out in our letter, the FSU take no view on Chubby Brown’s comedy routine, just as we do not advocate for specific points of view. What we do believe, however, is that unless laws are being broken, as opposed to some people finding something distasteful, members of the general public are mature enough to make up their own minds on what they wish to watch, read or listen to. We therefore concluded our letter with the request that Cllr Jackson reverse her decision. The Lancaster Post has now picked-up news of the FSU’s intervention, and we hope that this local press coverage will encourage Lancaster Council to do the right thing and allow the people of Morecambe to decide for themselves whether Chubby Brown’s set is worth the ticket price or not. You can read our letter in full here.

Another reason to support the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Student activists in Germany successfully pressured administrators to call off a public lecture by a PhD candidate on the evolution of binary sex at Berlin’s Humboldt University (Times Higher). The lecture, titled “Sex, gender and why there are only two sexes in biology” had been programmed as part of an established public science event that has taken place in Germany since 2000. Just two days before the talk, however, it was called off for “security reasons” after staff were alerted to a planned protest – activists from a group called ‘Working Group of Critical Lawyers’ had taken to Twitter to denounce the postdoctoral student’s work as “unscientific, inhuman and hostile to queer and trans people” before then offering the following, thinly veiled threat: “There is no place for queer hostility at our university. See you on the street!”

Humboldt University claims to have set a new date for the lecture, although whether that ever happens is now a moot point. The problem for organisations that cite “security reasons” when bowing to the demands of the mob is that they set a dangerous precedent. Every radical transactivist in Germany will now believe that if Humboldt University hosts a speaker whose views they happen not to like in the future, the threat of protest is all it takes to get the whole thing called off.

Thankfully, our Government recently accepted two amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that the FSU has long been campaigning for, one of which will make it harder for universities or students’ unions in England to cite “security concerns” as a reason to cancel events when faced with the threat of protests. Our amendment will also make it harder for universities and students’ unions to pursue ‘pre-emptive’ cancellations, whereby the ostensibly neutral language of “security costs” is invoked for altogether more political purposes. As former Universities Minister Michelle Donelan pointed out in the Commons recently, a student society recently faced a £500 security bill from Bristol University student union to allow Mark Regev, then the Israeli Ambassador, to give a talk, while charging nothing to allow his Palestinian counterpart to do the same (Jewish News). The Jewish Society at Lancaster University was also recently asked to pay £1,500 towards “security costs” as a condition of inviting Mark Regev. Because the Society couldn’t afford this, the event was cancelled (Telegraph).

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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