Free Speech Union: weekly news round-up

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.

Arrest of anti-royal protesters sparks free speech concerns

As the country observes an official period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, a spate of arrests of republican protesters at public events provoked what the media described variously as a “public backlash” (FT), an “outcry” (The Week) and a “row” (Evening Standard, Express) about heavy-handed policing, which then quickly prompted free speech “concerns” (iNews, BBC, Express), “fears” (National) “demonstrations” (Mail) and “debates” (Bloomberg).  

The first story to make the headlines involved a demonstrator who held a banner saying “f**k imperialism, abolish the monarchy” during the Proclamation for King Charles III in Edinburgh, and who was subsequently arrested and charged under a 2010 law that covers behaviour “likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm” (Independent).

Several other lone protestors have now been arrested, detained and in some cases charged with a public order offence for voicing criticisms of the monarchy (Mail, Guardian). Unsurprisingly, the police quickly came under fire for their “overreach” (Guido) and “excessive shutdown” of protests across the country, with one former counterterrorism chief even describing the approach of some officers as “heavy-handed”, “overzealous” and “inappropriate” (Mail).

A young woman who stood quietly holding a placard saying “not my king” was also escorted away from the Houses of Parliament by a group of police officers (Mail).

In Oxford, a man who shouted, “who elected him?” when Charles was officially proclaimed King was arrested, handcuffed and briefly detained on suspicion of a breach of public order under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, for allegedly using threatening or abusive words or behaviour that could cause bystanders “harassment, alarm or distress” (Metro). Another man, who heckled Prince Andrew in a procession along the Royal Mile in the Scottish capital, may face a similar charge, police confirmed on Tuesday (Daily Beast).

Later in the week, an overzealous Metropolitan Police Officer was caught on camera telling a protester whom he’d spotted holding aloft a blank piece of paper that he would be arrested if he wrote “Not my King” on it. “That may offend people,” he said. “Who’s that going to offend?” asked the protestor. “I don’t know, someone may be offended by it,” the officer replied (Sky News).

We can all probably agree that the sorrowful occasion of the late monarch’s death is not the best time or place to make political statements. Some will no doubt find the behaviour of the protestors – or as William Atkinson put it for ConHom, the “tedious, bargain basement Cromwells” – puerile. Others may feel it is grossly insensitive – certainly, as Sky News’s home editor Jason Farrell reported, for many people coming to pay their respects to the late Queen this was not the week for protests.

But as Observer columnist Sonia Sodha put it, “the test of a commitment to free expression is not whether you defend it at zero cost in relation to people you agree with, but whether you defend it when it costs you something and in relation to people you may disagree with but whose democratic rights you nevertheless respect”.

As a non-partisan, mass-membership public interest body that stands up for free speech, the FSU echoes that sentiment. That means defending the right of republicans to peaceful dissent. No-one should be arrested or charged for simply stating their opinion, no matter how distasteful the majority may find it. As Lord Justice Sedley said: “Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

The police are under unprecedented pressure during this time of national mourning, but officers on the ground nevertheless need to protect people’s right to protest, however irritating some people may find them.

It is for these reasons that the FSU has offered its support to several named protestors, urged others who had been arrested and/or charged to reach out to our case team, and issued several statements upholding the right of republicans to free speech and peaceful dissent (which you can read here, here and here).

If anyone who has been arrested for protesting against the monarchy in the past week is reading this, then please contact our case team on help@freespeechunion.org.

Gillian Philip fundraiser – an update!

Thanks to your generous support, and the sterling work of Gillian’s legal team (Shah Qureshi of Irwin Mitchell and barrister David Mitchell), permission has been granted for Gillian to bring her case to the Employment Appeal Tribunal. Gillian will now have the chance to persuade a superior court of record that in writing novels under the close control of her publishers she was a worker, entitled to the protections of the Equality Act 2010. This is a timely opportunity to secure protection from discrimination for precarious workers in an increasingly intolerant sector. Many congratulations, Gillian!

The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!

Details of the FSU’s packed schedule of events this Autumn was emailed to members last week, so do check if you’ve received that message (and let events@freespeechunion.org know if you haven’t).

Our 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 FSU General Secretary Toby Young on-stage in London on 27th September to discuss how we can push back against cancel culture and reinstate 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. FSU members can buy a signed copy of Andrew’s book, thanks to Primrose Hill books, who have set up a special offer sales page that includes free shipping to all customers within the UK. The link is here.

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. The Convention provides senior staff and the Directors of the FSU with an opportunity to thank members for their continuing support and report back on highlights from the past year – e.g., legal victories, case-work successes and the impact our behind-the-scenes policy work is having. It’s also an 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.

Then, on 12th October, Toby will be joined in conversation at an exclusive Online Speakeasy with the stand-up comedian, actor, writer and presenter Jack Dee. You can watch Jack’s video message inviting you to the event here.

FSU members will also be offered discount tickets to the Battle of Ideas Festival 2022 (15th and 16th October). During that event, Toby will be speaking on a panel the FSU is sponsoring focussing on the Online Safety Bill. The Free Speech Champions will also be hosting a session about how young people can be brought to care more about freedom of speech.

Anti-royal protests and the problem of subjective policing

As Lord Sumption pointed out in the Spectator last month, the problem with legislation built around subjectively perceived notions of harm is that it is “liable to adopt, by default, the standard of the most easily shocked, upset or offended”. The former Supreme Court judge was of course referring to the Online Safety Bill, but the point holds in relation to some of the laws used to arrest anti-royal protestors.

The arrests in Scotland, for instance, were made as a breach of the peace – behaviour which is “severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community”. In England, meanwhile, they were made under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which allows police to arrest someone whose use of threatening or abusive words or disorderly behaviour may cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. Writing for iNews, Ian Dunt noted that these laws, however different they may be in other respects, are similar in that they create an extremely vague category of criminal behaviour – e.g., “alarm” – and then hand the police the discretion to make a subjective judgement about what constitutes “alarm”. “Of course,” he says, “most protests are allowed to take place”, but they do so on the basis that a police officer’s judgement of a vague category of apparently criminal activity – swear words, provocative placards, lazy insults – could at any moment lead to arrests being made.

Not that there’s anything new about this, says Jacob Mchangama. The Public Order Act’s essentially subjective concepts of alarm or distress have for some time provided the police with “too wide a berth of discretion” and allowed them “to crack down on a variety of peaceful protests – ranging from animal cruelty demonstrators to atheists displaying posters questioning the existence of God”. (Daily Beast).

Has this led forces to adopt, in Lord Sumption’s words, “the standard of the most easily shocked, upset or offended” while policing events taking place during this period of national mourning? Speaking to Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkTV, FSU Chief Legal Counsel, Dr Bryn Harris, pointed out that it was not the role of the police to police good taste and decency, and nor was it their role to “choreograph the funeral”. (You can watch Bryn’s appearance on TalkTV here). The police seem to be on a hair trigger, he added, and are assuming that anything provocative is going to cause harassment, alarm or distress. The problem, in other words, is not so much the individual police officers involved, but the fact that the Act in question is empowering those officers to make subjective judgements about a vague category of apparently criminal activity in a highly charged public moment.

Strange bedfellows: David Davis, Jeremy Corbyn and free speech – a future FSU panel?

According to Guido, an “unlikely coalition” has formed between Conservative former Home Secretary David Davis and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn after both launched a push to defend freedom of speech in the wake of the arrests of republican protesters over the course of this week. On Monday, Mr Davis wrote to the Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Sir Iain Livingstone. Speaking as a “strong monarchist” he nevertheless expressed his “concern that an anti-monarchy protestor has been charged by police”. He was referring to the protestor who held up the “F*** imperialism, abolish the monarchy” placard, though of course since then several other similar arrests have been made. “If the individual concerned committed acts of violence, or the police had reason to believe she would, then action was obviously necessary,” he wrote. “But if the individual was simply stating an opinion, I trust you agree that a liberal approach would be desirable.”

Mr David then added in a separate tweet: “[R]epublicans have as much right to voice their opinions as anyone else.” Two days later, Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that “the arrest of republican protestors is wrong, anti-democratic and an abuse of the law” and then provided surprise cross-party backing for Mr Davis by congratulating him on his message: “Well said David.” Hardly effusive, it’s true, but it did get us thinking about the possibility of an FSU panel discussion on the place of free speech in the liberal and the socialist political traditions. Watch this space.

Free Speech Warriors hold to their principles

There was a time when free speech was held up as a sacred principle of the left. In recent years, though, a large section of the cadre Tom Slater refers to as the “woke left” (Spiked) has apparently abandoned the idea that it should strive to give a voice to the voiceless and allow them to stand up, speak out and challenge conventional wisdom. Even the term “free speech” has become a contentious phrase for progressives, something that, as Jemima Kelly puts it, is too often dismissed as “an eye-roll-worthy right-wing obsession that is a non-issue at best, or a cover for bigotry at worst” (FT).

Perhaps that’s why, as this week’s neo-medievalist clampdown on subjects who wished to refrain from celebrating the accession to the throne of their new King unfolded, many on the woke left felt that they had been gifted a glorious opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy of that figment of their fevered imaginations – the stuffy, monarchy-loving, gammon-faced free speech warrior.

“The outcry on the left has – correctly – called out the hypocrisy of right-wing ‘free speech’ advocates who maintain a stony silence on these arrests,” crowed the Morning Star. “The silence of so-called free speech groups is deafening,” thundered the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire. “The reason ‘free speech’ warriors don’t kick over stuff like this is very straightforward,” explained permanently dyspeptic left-wing pundit Owen Jones. “The ‘free speech’ they actually care about is the right to say bigoted and stigmatising things about minorities.”

But as Jemima Kelly rightly points out, these missives couldn’t have been more wrong: “‘Free speech warriors’, from the Free Speech Union to Spiked Online, have indeed been kicking off, and loudly.”

What, then, are we to make of the woke left’s instinctive belief that those they like to slur as ‘free speech’ advocates would simply look the other way while cancel culture came for the values they hold dear – protest, class-based social analysis, republicanism, and so on?

Perhaps if she were still alive, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein might diagnose a rather acute case of projective identification – a defence mechanism in which the unpalatable aspects of the self are projected onto another person or group. Tom Slater certainly feels that these people’s “chutzpah is almost impressive”. Here they are, he says, “accusing free-speechers of hypocrisy, despite ample evidence to the contrary, while at the same time only ever defend[ing] speech they agree with”. And isn’t it also the case, as Jemima Kelly suggests, that “in trying to point out the hypocrisy of the right”, Owen Jones and friends have “inadvertently revealed the insincerity of their concerns about freedom of expression”?

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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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