Free Speech Union Monthly Newsletter: FSU campaign pushed free speech to top of Tory leadership race agenda!

The Conservative Party leadership contest had only just started when the results of an independent opinion poll commissioned by the FSU were published. They showed that people in this country strongly support our five-point Free Speech Manifesto (available here). The headline finding was that only 2% of the public strongly agree that the Government is doing a good job of standing up for free speech. (Interestingly, that figure falls to just 1% among 25-49-year-olds).

In light of that poll, we decided to launch a campaign to get supporters who are also members of the Conservative Party to use our new campaigning tool to email the leadership candidates, and urge them to do more to protect free speech.

Last week the contest entered its final phase, as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak completed their 12th and final hustings. With the ballot now closed, and the next leader of the Conservative Party – and country – to be announced today, it’s worth reflecting on just how successful the FSU’s first digitally enhanced campaign has been.

Our campaigning tool was used to send over 4,000 emails to the leadership candidates, and it’s clear from the tone and tenor of the contest that FSU members have helped catapult free speech issues that might otherwise have been overlooked to the forefront of contest.

The free speech commitments FSU members helped win from leadership contenders – a re-cap

Nowhere is the impact of the FSU’s campaign clearer than in the case of non-crime hate incidents (NCHIs). The email urged the two candidates to end the investigation and recording of NCHIs by the police.

During the campaign, Ms Truss – who will almost certainly be crowned Prime Minister later today – unveiled plans to ban police training focused on identity politics and to reduce the time officers spend investigating trivial online comments. Drilling down into policy specifics, Ms Truss went on to say that as Prime Minister she would make sure the NCHI code of practice that the next Home Secretary will issue (thanks to an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that the FSU worked on, details of which you can read about here) will robustly defend free speech.

Rishi Sunak also made clear that “our police forces must be fully focused on fighting actual crime in people’s neighbourhoods and not policing bad jokes” (Telegraph). A spokesperson for Mr Sunak took this commitment a little further than Ms Truss with the suggestion that “on NCHIs we don’t need a code of practice”. Things “are either illegal or legal”, he said, and because “free speech is legal” it follows that “the police should not be wasting time getting involved, and they won’t in a Rishi Sunak Government” (GB News).

It seems unlikely that this esoteric policing technique would have become such a prominent issue in the leadership contest were it not for the sheer weight of FSU-inspired emails pinging into candidates’ inboxes over the past eight weeks.

Another issue the email urged candidates to commit to was ditching those clauses in the Online Safety Bill that pose a threat to freedom of expression. During the first few weeks of the contest, both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss expressed reservations about the Bill’s likely impact on free speech. As the campaign wore on, those reservations crystallised into firm policy pledges, with both candidates making clear they will either scrap or significantly amend clause 13 of the Bill, which aims to regulate so-called ‘legal but harmful’ content.

Mr Sunak also spoke in favour of another Free Speech Manifesto commitment, namely, amending the Equality Act 2010 so it cannot be misused to push an ideological agenda and degrade liberal values – one of the five points in our Free Speech Manifesto. In response to a student who stood up during the Manchester hustings to tell how his college had reprimanded him for posting messages on Twitter in support of the Government’s Rwanda deal, the former Chancellor said: “I want to change the public sector equality duty so that universities are ‘forced’ to uphold free speech on campus” (Metro).

What does the FSU want from the next Prime Minister?

It’s encouraging to see that both candidates have addressed the FSU’s concerns regarding the Equality Act 2010 and the Orwellian ‘thought policing’ tool that is the non-crime hate incident report. What we need from the next Prime Minister are similarly robust commitments to engage with the other issues raised in our Free Speech Manifesto.

On workers’ rights, for instance, we want to see new workplace speech rights introduced and existing legal protections strengthened to ensure employees cannot be disciplined or sacked for refusing to attend diversity training courses or declare their gender pronouns.

On education, we want to see an end to the political indoctrination of children in schools.

On the legislative front, we want to see the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill progress on to the statute books so that free speech and academic freedom are better protected on campus, and we want to see freedom of expression given a preeminent place in the new Bill of Rights Bill so that artists, novelists, dancers, poets, playwrights and comedians can speak truth to power without fear of being cancelled.

Finally, on the “censor’s charter” that is the Online Safety Bill, we want to see the next Prime Minster do more to protect free speech online. It’s great that both candidates have committed to looking again at clause 13 of the Bill, but there are other aspects of the Bill that also pose a threat to free speech.

At present, for instance, it requires providers like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to remove in every part of the United Kingdom content that’s illegal in any part of the United Kingdom. So if something is illegal to say in Scotland, but not in the rest of the UK, the big social media companies would have to remove it in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Do we really want to empower Nicola Sturgeon to dictate what the entire British population is allowed to see and say online? That seems insane, particularly as Scotland has just passed the Hate Crime and Public Order Act – a piece of legislation that will make it illegal to say a large number of things that are currently lawful to say in the rest of the UK. (FSU Scottish Advisory Council member Jamie Gillies describes the Act as an “authoritarian mess”.)

With the Online Safety Bill set to return to Parliament, it’s going to be more important than ever to keep up the pressure on legislators over the coming months. Now that the leadership contest is over, one very effective way for members to do so will be to use our website’s template email generator to write to their MP and ask that he or she look again at the Bill (the campaigning tool is here).

The FSU is hiring – Legislative Affairs Director

In the last year, the FSU has seen sister organisations set up in the US, New Zealand and South Africa, with further expansion to come. We have an exciting journey ahead and we’re looking for talented individuals to join our organisation. As we expand our parliamentary work, we’re looking for a Legislative Affairs Director. (Full details here.) This individual will help drive our lobbying, campaigning and advocacy work, with a view to strengthening legislative protections of free speech, seeing off legislative challenges to free speech and persuading ministers and senior officials to protect free speech through mechanisms like, for instance, departmental guidance. If you’re committed to the defence of free speech and freedom of expression and have experience of working with parliamentarians and government officials to influence policy, lobbying and campaigning, overseeing submissions to public consultations and inquiries, and helping to steer bills through parliament and amending existing bills, then we’d like to hear from you. In the first instance, please send a CV and introductory letter to: jobs@freespeechunion.org.

The FSU publishes its new briefing paper on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

It’s all but certain that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will resume its journey through Parliament once Liz Truss has been sworn in as the new Prime Minister. The Bill is designed to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in English universities, and my view is that it cannot be passed soon enough. The FSU gets about a dozen requests for help each week from university students or academics who have got into trouble for exercising their lawful right to free speech, and in almost every case the individuals in question would have been in a stronger position to fight back had this new legislation been in place.

Back in July, the Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords, and while it was heartening to see the Free Speech Union’s casework and policy briefings getting referenced during the debate (interventions you can watch on our Twitter channel here), it was a little disappointing to see various unfounded criticisms of the Bill being aired. Of course, like any legislation the Bill can be improved, but many of the criticisms at second reading relied on common misunderstandings of the problems facing English universities and are easily rebutted.

It’s for that reason that the FSU’s Chief Legal Counsel, Dr Bryn Harris, has been working with Professors Arif Ahmed (University of Cambridge), Nigel Biggar (University of Oxford), Eric Kaufmann (Birkbeck College, London), and Doug Stokes (University of Exeter) – all members of our Advisory Council – to prepare an FSU briefing note in which the principal criticisms raised by peers are answered. (The Hansard record of the second reading debate can be found here.)

The FSU is anxious to ensure that further debate of the Bill is informed by relevant evidence of the free speech problem at English universities, and strong arguments for how it can be resolved. That’s why we’re now circulating this briefing to allies in both Houses of Parliament. Over the next few weeks – hopefully not months! – we’re looking forward to engaging with those allies to make sure that the free speech protections contained in the Bill are as robust as possible.

The briefing note is here. You can find our previous briefings on the Bill here and here.

The letter I sent in my capacity as FSU General Secretary to the then Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, and the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, thanking them for introducing two essential amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that we campaigned for is here, as is the response we received from the new Education Secretary, James Cleverly, thanking us for the support we’ve given the Bill.

Our next online event – Teaching tolerance: Understanding free speech issues in schools

The FSU’s schedule of online and in-person events for September to December kicks off on Tuesday 13th September with an Online In-Depth on free speech in schools. I’ll be chairing the event, and, unlike our usual members-only events, this one will be open to anyone who is interested in this issue – so please feel free to share the details with anyone you think might be interested. You can register here to receive the Zoom link.  

Our panel of experts includes anti-racist campaigner Adrian Hart of Don’t Divide Us, critic of gender ideology and co-founder of Conservatives for Women, Caroline Ffiske, and Clare Page, a London parent who raised the alarm over highly politicised teaching materials being used at her child’s school. The common thread uniting our panellists is the fact that they are all campaigning for the right of parents to access and challenge ideologically driven teaching materials in English schools.

One issue I’m particularly looking forward to discussing with the panel is why free speech issues crop up so frequently now in primary and secondary schools. There have obviously long been clashes over sex education, often pitting religious parents against their children’s schools, but in recent years we’ve seen a marked increase in instances of parents and schools coming into conflict over the interpretation of more secular values such as ‘anti-racism’ and ‘inclusivity’, and even over the teaching of history, literature and biology. Many of the parents that contact the FSU for advice on these issues are concerned that the range of views considered up for debate within schools is too narrow and that, as a result, there may be repercussions, from teachers or pupils, should they or their children ever dare to question beliefs that are currently fashionable.

The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!

Our packed schedule of Autumn events programme will be emailed to members on Wednesday 7th September, so do look out for that (and let events@freespeechunion.org know if you don’t receive it). If you aren’t yet a member, being part of our exclusive online and in-person events and getting to interact with guest speakers like Joanna Williams, Douglas Murray, Quentin Letts, Baroness Fox of Buckley, Helen Joyce and Professor Kathleen Stock is a great reason to join.

Upcoming members-only events include a live, in-person launch of Andrew Doyle’s brilliant new book The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World. The comedian, author, and presenter of GB News’s Free Speech Nation will join me on-stage in London on 27th September to discuss how we can push back against cancel culture and start reinstating liberal democratic values. There’ll be plenty of time for an audience Q&A, as well as for audience members to purchase signed copies of The New Puritans. Technology permitting, we’re hoping to livestream this event for members who can’t attend in person – we’ll be in touch about that in due course. The event will be followed by a members-only launch party of the book.

I’m also delighted to announce that on 12th October I’ll be joined in conversation at an exclusive Online Speakeasy by stand-up comedian, actor, writer and presenter Jack Dee. You can watch Jack’s video message inviting you to the event by clicking here. This, too, is a members-only event.

Members will also be offered discount tickets to the Battle of Ideas Festival 2022 (15th and 16th October). During that event, I’ll be speaking on a panel the FSU is sponsoring on the Online Safety Bill. The Free Speech Champions will also be partnering on a session about how young people can be persuaded to join the defence of freedom of speech. 

On 5th October we’ll be holding our second Online Annual Convention. This event is exclusively for Gold and Founder members, so do consider joining now as a Gold member or upgrading your current membership package (full instructions will be provided in Wednesday’s Events email). The Convention affords senior staff and the Directors of the FSU the opportunity to thank members for their continuing support and to report back on highlights from the past year – e.g., legal victories, case-work successes and the impact our behind-the-scenes legislative and policy work is having. It’s also a great opportunity for Gold and Founder members to participate in a Q&A where they get to have their say about the work we’re doing.

An update on the FSU’s current caseload

High profile university cases tend to capture the media headlines – only this month, for instance, the case of an FSU member at the University of Sheffield was reported in the Telegraph, while the legal action another FSU member is bringing against the BIMM Institute received widespread media attention (Mail, Spiked, Telegraph, Times). Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of a rather large iceberg. Much of the FSU’s casework takes place beyond the higher education sector, and this month we’ve been assisting members drawn from all walks of life, including NHS clinicians, cleaners, police officers, parents, and countless employees of private businesses in a huge variety of sectors.

We get an average of 50 requests for help a week and at any one time we’ll have around 100 cases on the go. These are cases where people have been punished, sacked, bullied, harassed, investigated, or disciplined for speaking their mind – or because a colleague prowled through their personal social media profiles in an effort to find ‘offensive’ material. In a typical week the case team will be kept busy drafting letters to employers to shut down sham investigations, advising members about the rules and procedures governing internal investigations, and counselling people through what are always extremely stressful situations.

Because of the privacy concerns at stake we can’t always publicise our successes, but this month, armed with our handy FAQs, members have succeeded in challenging the pronoun policies creeping into work places, reminding bosses that employees have the right to their own opinions. Each small battle like this is part of a broader fightback for free speech, and case by case we’re working to end the stifling culture that’s engulfed many workplaces.

General fighting fund

This month we’ve helped people from all walks of life, with cases ranging from people being kicked off social media for questioning gender ideology, to members losing their jobs and livelihoods for comments made outside of work. People contact us every week who never imagined they’d need our support. Help us to help them: if you can, please donate to our general fighting fund.

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 and 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.

Kind regards,

Toby Young

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