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.

The attack on Sir Salman Rushdie is an attack on freedom of expression

Sir Salman Rushdie was set to deliver a lecture in New York last Friday when a man rushed the stage and repeatedly stabbed him in the neck, face, abdomen and back. (Reuters, Mail, BBC, Wall Street Journal). The author and British citizen has lived with a bounty on his head ever since his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses prompted Iran to issue a fatwa urging Muslims to kill him, although some outlets – BBC Radio 4 and the Guardian in particular – initially appeared reluctant to admit the relevance of that fact, claiming instead that the motive for the attack was “unclear”. For Frank Furedi that was “rank absurdity”, not least because the attacker’s apparent sympathy for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Shia extremism was “obvious to anyone with an internet connection”. (Mail).

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the 75-year-old was airlifted to hospital and placed on a ventilator, having suffered injuries to his face, neck, abdomen and liver. (Guardian). He is also likely to lose an eye. (Sky News). Despite these severe, life-changing injuries, his son Zafar Rushdie said in a statement that Salman has now regained consciousness, is alert and has retained his “usual feisty and defiant sense of humour”. (Telegraph).

The thoughts of everyone at the Free Speech Union are with Salman and his family. Despite the many assassination attempts, the killings and the maimings of those associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses, the years spent in hiding, the safehouses, bodyguards, armoured cars, the “impossible dream”, as he put it in his memoir, Joseph Anton, of kicking a football in a park with his young son; despite all of that, Rushdie has rarely taken a backwards step or missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of freedom of expression, a principle he has “embodied” – as the author Margaret Attwood put it this week – ever since Ayatollah Khomeini issued his decree. Embodied is right. This barbaric stabbing was an attack not just on Salman’s freedom of expression, but on all of ours. We stand in solidarity with him now, and always.

“Stand with Salman” – the return of civic courage

A few days after the order to kill Salman Rushdie was issued back in 1989, the likes of Tom Wolfe, Christopher Hitchens and Seamus Heaney stood up to defend him. The leader of the pack was the writer Susan Sontag, then President of PEN America, who helped organise a public reading of Rushdie´s work in New York. (Times, Spectator). As Sontag remarked at the time, it was a moment that called for some basic “civic courage”.

Thirty-three years later, and with Salman recovering in hospital, hundreds of writers will once again gather to read from his collected works. The ‘Stand with Salman’ event is being organised by, among others, FSU Director Douglas Murray, and will be held on the steps of the New York Public Library this morning. Organisers are encouraging those who can’t be there to express solidarity in other ways, hosting public readings of Salman Rushdie’s work in their own community or posting home videos of readings from Rushdie’s work with the hashtag #StandWithSalman.

The stabbing of Sir Salman Rushdie – how did we get here?

Writing in the Times, Ian McEwan recollected that the Ayatollah’s fatwa initially appeared “like a last desperate lunge against modernity and all its secular confidence”. The world was beginning to open up. Democracies were flourishing. The philosopher Francis Fukuyama was making a name for himself trumpeting western liberal democracy as the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution. Now, however, “when the illiberal spirit is gathering its forces”, the attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life “appears nastily consonant with our times”.

Nastily consonant and nastily symbolic too. For Douglas Murray, the vicious, on-stage attack stands in metonymically for a wider, civilisational battle. (Telegraph). It was, as he put it for the Spectator, “an attack on literature by those who fail to understand it. An attack on freedom of speech by people who have no concept of it. An attack of the dogmatists and the literalists on people who believe in free inquiry. An attack of the closed mind on the open one.” 

Not that the opposing sides in this battle can easily be separated along geographic lines. As Mick Hume argues, “the attempt by an apparent supporter of the Islamic regime of Iran to murder Salman Rushdie for the crime of blasphemy might seem to reveal an East-West divide, but in truth battles over blasphemy have always been a central part of the struggle for free speech within the West itself”. (Spiked). Contemporary conceptualisations of “hate-speech”, he said, are often little more than redefined, secularised versions of pre-Enlightenment notions of blasphemy – a word which has its origins in the Ancient Greek words for ‘injure’ and ‘speech’.

That was why FSU member Gillian Philip felt there was a “bitter irony” to the “Western literati” offering sympathy to Salman Rushdie, while at the same time “acting as cheerleaders of woke censorship”. (Mail). “Ever since Sir Salman Rushdie was stabbed, Western cultural leaders have been lining up to express their outrage and declare their support for everyone’s right to free speech,” she wrote. It might be easier to take those words seriously, she continued, if “so many of them – especially publishers, broadcasters and educators – had not shamefully colluded with intolerance in the past.”

Matthew Syed concurred. We may rightly blame the Rushdie attack on Muslim fanatics, he wrote in a searing piece for the Times, but the “sinister truth” is that for many years, “Western liberals” have “worked as the de facto accomplices of the ayatollah, assisting in the task of dismantling free speech, sending fear through those who dare to criticise or ridicule religion or anything else”. We arrive at a liberal democracy in which an author can be stabbed for the crime of ‘blasphemy’ not just because of fire and brimstone, but also through bureaucratic “stealth and increment, through a million little retreats, through the acquiescence of those who should know better”.

Gillian Philip fights for freedom of expression in publishing – show your support!

FSU supporters may remember the case of Gillian Philip. Gillian is the author who brought an Employment Tribunal claim against her former publishers, Working Partners and HarperCollins, on the grounds that they terminated her contract to write young adult fiction because she stood up for JK Rowling on Twitter. She alleges unlawful discrimination, and the case is a landmark in the fight for a woman’s right to state biological facts without fear of losing her job.

The case has important repercussions beyond the gender debate. Thanks to the exceptional generosity of FSU supporters who donated to our previous CrowdJustice campaign, Gillian was able to bring her case to a preliminary hearing earlier this year. Despite top-drawer representation from Shah Qureshi of Irwin Mitchell solicitors and barrister David Mitchell, the preliminary hearing found that Gillian did not have rights under the Equality Act 2010 because she was employed as a “contract writer” rather than as an “employee” of Working Partners.

Whether contract writers are ‘workers’ is an important question of law. Without such status, writers do not benefit from employment legislation preventing unfair dismissal or the protections of the Equality Act against unlawful discrimination. Maya Forstater’s case established that gender critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act, but this judgement is rendered meaningless if workers can simply be described as ‘contractors’ and deprived of its protections. Unscrupulous employers are being empowered to side-step employment protections: by designating freelancers as ‘independent’ they have the power to silence writers and other precariously employed people.

It is therefore vital that we support Gillian as she appeals her case and defends her right to freedom of speech and the protections of employment law. It is in everyone’s interests that authors like Gillian, who entertain and inspire us, enjoy the legal protections they need to express themselves freely and securely.

Once again, we need your help. This appeal could be of ground-breaking importance for the publishing industry, determining not only the freedom of speech of contract writers, but also pay and conditions. Please join the fight and support Gillian’s crowd funder here.

From trigger warnings to consent in the UK higher education sector?

Last week we reported on a Times investigation that revealed 1,081 ‘trigger warnings’ had been applied to texts on undergraduate reading lists at UK universities. Perhaps that figure should be amended to 1,082 given this week’s news that Warwick University is to alert English literature students to the presence of “upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life” in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (Telegraph). As Professor Frank Furedi pointed out, the problem with trigger warnings is that they “treat literature as a health risk rather than a learning experience, and, in doing so, treat young people not as students but patients”.

Reflecting on these findings for Unherd and Spiked, FSU Advisory Council Member Dr Arif Ahmed proposes a way around this ever-growing problem. In the same way that surgeons require patients to sign consent forms before undergoing risky operations, Arif suggests that universities require prospective university students to consent to “the risk of exposure to ideas legally expressed in ways they find may find shocking, disturbing, or offensive” prior to their enrolment on a course. If they refuse, “then they would be free to withdraw from university at any point”, and universities “would have no need to… put trigger warnings on course material”.

Dr Ahmed goes on to add three “clarifications”: first, that the waiver would not cover illegal speech; second, that the waiver would cover expression of ideas but not speech that directly impaired the functioning of the university; and third, that a student who withdraws consent is not preventing any teacher or fellow student from saying or hearing anything “offensive”, but rather, excluding themselves. Perhaps a useful fourth clarification would be that university “extenuating circumstances” procedures would be re-written to ensure the waiver couldn’t be circumvented by students looking to re-sit poorly graded coursework on the basis that anxiety or mental illness caused by unexpectedly ‘triggering’ material contributed to their poor performance.

FSU Online In-Depth: Free speech in schools

Our schedule of online and in-person events for September to December kicks off on 13th September with an Online In-Depth. A panel of experts and campaigners will be discussing how and why free speech issues are coming up more and more often in primary and secondary schools. Unlike our usual online events, this one will be open to anyone who is interested in this issue, so please feel free to share the details. You can register here to receive the Zoom link.

FSU member Cathy Boardman’s legal fundraiser – join the fight!

FSU member Cathy Boardman is taking the BIMM, a private higher education institute, to the Employment Tribunal for unfair dismissal and discrimination due to her gender-critical beliefs. Dr Boardman was fired from her position as Lecturer in Cultural Studies after students – and one of her colleagues – complained to management about her “perceived trans-exclusionary views”. The charge sheet included a seminar on sex and gender in which Dr Boardman asked students to compare mainstream societal reactions to “blackface” and “drag”, and some standard pedagogic reminders to students to define concepts like sex and gender when writing academically. A few BIMM students who sound like they will no doubt one day flourish in the UK’s burgeoning ‘offence archaeology’ sector also took it upon themselves to comb Dr Boardman’s personal Facebook account looking for evidence of alleged transphobia and subsequently uncovered a post in which she said it was unfair that biological males were competing in woman’s weightlifting.

A preliminary hearing will take place in November. Please join the fight and support her crowd funder.

Society of Authors “missing in action” after failing to condemn JK Rowling death threats

The Society of Authors made the news this week after a row broke out between JK Rowling and Joanne Harris, the union’s chairwoman. The catalyst for the disagreement was last week’s vicious attack on Salman Rushdie, although as Nick Tyrone points out, “the trans issue was hanging there in the background, as Harris and Rowling are widely known to be on opposing sides of the transgender debate” (Spiked).

Rowling had been tweeting her support for Rushdie in the wake of his stabbing when an Iran-supporting Islamic extremist responded with: “Don’t worry you are next.” (The same Twitter account also posted messages praising the man who attacked Rushdie on stage in New York state.)

Harris then took to Twitter to ask: “Fellow-authors… have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)?” To many authors, the tone suggested that Harris was essentially accusing Rowling of being melodramatic in drawing attention to the threat she’d received (Mail, Critic).

Later in the week, Rowling issued a statement via the Times in which she claimed Harris had “consistently failed” to defend female gender-critical authors who disagreed “with her personal position on gender-identity ideology”. She cited the cases of two authors, Rachel Rooney and Gillian Philip, who had suffered “severe personal and professional harm” because they dared to “challenge a fashionable ideology which has been remarkably successful in demonising those who protest against the current attack on women’s rights”. Rowling added: “I find it impossible to square the society’s stated position on freedom of speech with Harris’s public statements over the past two years and stand in solidarity with all female writers in the UK who currently feel betrayed by their professional body and its leader.” 

For Nick Tyrone, Rowling has a point: “If the Society of Authors isn’t going to stand up to the threats authors face to their free speech, and it is not going to challenge publishers who exploit writers, then it’s hard to see why the organisation exists at all. Now more than ever,” he concludes, “writers need champions. We need people who will defend our right to say what needs to be said, regardless of how ‘problematic’ that can sometimes be. But when our own authors’ union is missing in action, we will have to find these champions elsewhere.”

Authors like Nick are of course always welcome to join the Free Speech Union.

The “sad inevitability” of comedian Jerry Sadowitz’s cancellation

Comedian Jerry Sadowitz was scheduled to play two nights at Edinburgh comedy venue The Pleasance during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but on Saturday (13th August), the venue cancelled his second performance at short notice (Spectator, Times). The Pleasance moved quickly to denounce Mr Sadowitz’s first gig, loftily declaring that it “[did] not align with our values”, “ha[d] no place on the Festival” and that it had been so offensive as to make people feel “unsafe”. (This, by the way, after insisting – “apparently with a straight face” as Michael Deacon put it for the Telegraph – that the Pleasance “is a venue that champions freedom of speech”).

Coming as it does in the immediate aftermath of an attempt on Salman Rushdie’s life, the purely bureaucratic cancellation of a misanthropic, self-loathing comedian cum magician with a penchant for exposing his penis might not immediately seem like the sort of stuff that weekly free speech newsletters are made of. But for the Guardian’s comedy critic, Brian Logan, it was a “watershed moment”. Many previous “cancel culture versus comedy furores”, he said, “involved powerful acts” with TV shows – “your Dave Chappelles, Ricky Gervaises and Jimmy Carrs”. This, however, was something different: “a low-status, stubbornly niche show getting pulled hours before its performance, thus denying hundreds of ticket-holders their chance to see it”.

TRIGGERnometry podcast host Konstantin Kisin thought it was a cancellation waiting to happen. He recalls his own ‘watershed’ moment back in 2018 when Nica Burns, the Director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, launched the Edinburgh Festival with an agenda-setting speech. “Today,” she declared, “it is the woke movement which… seeks to establish a clear marker for what is unacceptable,” before adding that she was “excited” about “comedy’s future in the woke world!” Tellingly, nobody in the room protested. “In fact,” says Konstantin, “much seal-like clapping ensued from the ‘shakers and movers’ in attendance who were, it seems, also looking forward to comedy’s future in the woke world.” That’s why for him, the ongoing cancellation of Jerry Sadowitz is more of a “sad inevitability than a surprise”.

And what about basic comedic principles – doesn’t the notion of an onstage persona count anymore? As Andrew Doyle was quick to point out, the Pleasance’s statement that “opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are not acceptable”, displayed a worrying lack of understanding of the difference between jokes – performed by a persona – and opinions – held by the person performing the persona. (Unherd). To denounce Sadowitz’s onstage persona as racist, sexist, or homophobic, he said, makes about as much sense as condemning Macbeth for his ruthless ambition. Will the Pleasance from now on only accept bookings from comics who think, vote and act in a similar manner to the venue’s board of trustees? Perhaps they should save themselves the booking fees and simply install a giant mirror on the venue’s stage.

The St Ethelburga’s Centre is hiring!

The St Ethelburga’s Centre is hiring for three new openings and welcomes applications from people across multiple faith traditions, backgrounds, political outlooks, and viewpoints. The three roles are Project Manager, Lifelines Project Assistant and Events and Communications Coordinator. Full details can be seen on their vacancies page.

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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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