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.
Financial censorship – a request for information from members
It has come to our attention that the online platform Ko-Fi has removed a number of accounts belonging to some feminists and feminist organisations. Ko-Fi is a multi-purpose platform that allows users to sell their work and raise donations. The FSU is helping some of the cancelled users, including campaign group Conservatives for Women (we’ve tweeted about that case here and here), and is keen to help anyone else who has fallen foul of Ko-Fi in this way. If it has happened to you, or to someone you know, please get in touch.
You can reach our case team at email@example.com, or drop us a direct message via Twitter (@SpeechUnion), Facebook (@SpeechUnion), LinkedIn (Free Speech Union) or Instagram (@FreeSpeechUnion).
The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!
You can see a calendar of all our events on our Events page. As that is a public page, you cannot book members-only events on the website, so do please look out for regular emails from FSU Events for full details, including links for tickets and registration.
Members who have opted to hear about FSU Events should have received an email this week. If you have not received this, do check your inbox, including your junk folder, and get in touch if you can’t find it there, using firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have two excellent sessions at the Battle of Ideas Festival taking place in London this weekend (15th and 16th October). Toby will be speaking on a packed panel debating Online Safety vs Free Speech on Saturday afternoon, and the Free Speech Champions will discuss Winning Young Hearts and Minds on Sunday afternoon, with panellists including Professor Alice Sullivan and Rod Liddle. Members can access special discount tickets by entering the promo code FSU-BattleFest2022 at the top of the ticket page. Do come and say hello to us at our stall where we’ll also be selling some merch.
The FSU intervenes after London college requests staff declare their pronouns
An elite performing arts college that, as the Mail was quick to point out, “was once attended by Spice Girl Mel C”, has told staff to declare their preferred pronouns on email in solidarity with trans people. Bird College in south London also asked employees to display the transgender Pride flag and Black Lives Matter (BLM) logo in all written correspondence.
In an email to staff last week, the college’s principal, Luis De Abreu, provided a signature template for them to use, writing: “Please can we all have the same version as attached.” The template included his pronouns, ‘he/him’; the slogan ‘I’m #MadeByDyslexia’; and the logos of the trans ‘Pride’ lobby and BLM.
Was this an attempt by Bird College to compel its employees to endorse some contentious philosophical and political views?
Declaring one’s pronouns is certainly a way of expressing support for the agenda of transrights activists, including their insistence that a person’s sex is not an immutable biological fact about them, but something that can be changed at will.
That’s fine if that’s what you believe, of course. But for an employer to instruct employees who don’t believe this – gender critical feminists, say, or orthodox Christians – to declare their gender pronouns, with the implication that they will suffer a detriment if they fail to comply, is an act of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, as well as a breach of their Article 9 and Article 10 rights under the Human Rights Act.
It’s a similar story in the case of a self-proclaimed Marxist organisation like BLM – very few members of staff at Mel C’s alma mater are likely to share this far-left organisation’s desire to defund the police, smash capitalism and destroy the nuclear family.
Perhaps a contrarian might try to argue that because Mr De Abreu’s statement has an interrogative structure (“Please can we…”) it’s a little unfair to interpret it as anything other than a polite request for colleagues to voluntarily follow their principal’s lead.
But the email’s recipients weren’t just Mr De Abreu’s colleagues. They were people he’d hired, people he could fire, people whose careers were to some extent in his hands.
Add to the mix the fact that tutors had previously been told during a staff meeting that they “must” use pronouns, while some also felt there was a ‘climate of fear’ in the college such that students were being harassed by peers if they objected to gender identity ideology, and it’s not difficult to see why Mr De Abreu’s email caused disquiet.
According to one employee who spoke to the Mail, “Some staff members feel compelled and bullied and that they are being forced to misrepresent themselves and lie about their beliefs… Now this email telling us all to insert pronouns into our signatures and support the various organisations shown in the template he has sent out… It is not optional. It is definitely compelled.”
Following a tip off from a member of staff, FSU General Secretary Toby Young wrote to the college, setting out the legal violations that may have taken place, and asking Mr De Abreu to make clear to staff that whether they choose to declare their gender pronouns or include the Pride or BLM flags in their signatures is entirely optional, and that they won’t suffer any detriment, including harm to their promotion prospects, if they refuse to do so. You can read that letter here.
Following receipt of our letter the college appears to have had second thoughts. “We appreciate that this may have been interpreted as an instruction to include pronouns and certain logos,” Mr De Abreu conceded in a statement issued to the Mail, “but it is not, and has never been, the intention of Bird College to require any staff member to declare pronouns, or to appear to support any political group in their email signature.”
Are free speech and decolonisation compatible in UK higher education?
Under the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, universities will have a legal duty to promote free speech. That’s good (obviously), but research by the think tank Civitas suggests that institutions currently engaged in attempts to decolonise curricula may struggle to fulfil that duty (Epoch Times, Mail, Mail).
The think tank set out to ascertain whether there’s a correlation between the frequency of occurrence of free speech controversies, and the intensity with which a university adopts decolonisation initiatives.
To that end, researchers first identified 374 free speech controversies that occurred at UK universities during the period 2017-20. These included: 142 “anti-free speech petitions”, 123 “transphobic” controversies, 30 so-called “no-platformings” or “disinvitations” of external speakers, and multiple demands for the censure or firing of academics, and/or restrictions on their publication and teaching.
Next, they scoured university websites, looking for any mention of either formal university policies or official statements/commitments on decolonisation or any mention of academics pushing for decolonisation. What they found was that “the decolonisation movement is more pronounced in British universities than previously thought”. Specifically. over half (56%) of UK universities have “an official commitment in some form”, while a third (34%) “employ academics that are advocating for decolonisation”. Seven out of 10 have at least one or the other.
Correlation analysis of these variables then established that free speech controversies do in fact tend to occur moderately more often “where there are official policies/statements as well as academic advocates of decolonisation”.
In a sense, that’s not particularly surprising – at an anecdotal level much evidence already exists to suggest that decolonisation initiatives often involve senior administrators, bodies like Advance HE and/or radical activists pressuring academics to conform and overriding their independence when it comes to setting reading lists for their courses and writing their lectures (e.g., Mail, Times Higher, Telegraph). What’s important about the quantitative research conducted by Civitas, however, is that it suggests these anecdotes aren’t anecdotes at all, but instances of a wider, statistically observable trend across UK higher education.
Drawing on research conducted for the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report concludes with a summary of students’ views on free speech. It suggests there may be growing support for decolonisation among younger generations: 77% of students believe there should be mandatory training for all university staff on understanding other cultures (up 22% since 2016); 76% of students think universities should always or sometimes get rid of memorials of potentially controversial figures – up from 51% in 2016; and 62% of students say they support the creation of so-called “safe spaces” on campus, a policy increasingly associated with attempts to decolonise the university classroom – up 14% since 2016.
The report’s author, Dr Richard Norrie, concludes that “the evidence shows a strong and growing censorious cohort of students who prefer cossetting over intellectual challenge, as though the harms of the latter were real and unbearable”.
The FSU writes to the NEU regarding its draft definition of ‘transphobia’
FSU General Secretary Toby Young has written to the National Education Union, Britain’s largest teaching union, after a whistleblower leaked a document to our organisation containing the NEU’s proposed definition of ‘transphobia’ (LBC, iNews, Telegraph, Unherd). The definition has been drafted after a resolution to develop a definition of transphobia was passed at the last annual NEU conference in the spring, and now looks likely to be adopted.
The proposal suggests that anyone who expects trans people “to participate in discussion or debate about their rights and/or identities” is transphobic, and cites “propagating ideas, concepts and misinformation harmful to trans people and which erase and ignore trans history” as examples of transphobic behaviour (while neither outlining what is meant by “trans history” nor what “ideas, concepts and misinformation” would be considered harmful). It further defines transphobia as a “rejection of trans identity and a refusal to acknowledge that those identities are real or valid” or the “incorrect use of pronouns”.
While protecting trans pupils, trans teachers and trans support staff from harassment is a worthy aim, it’s clear that this proposal goes way beyond legal compliance and would have the effect of rendering any challenge to gender critical ideology or the agenda of transrights activists as a form of extrajudicial hate crime.
That’s problematic because, statistically, it’s inevitable that in a mass membership organisation like the NEU many members will reject the central tenet of gender identity ideology, namely, that sex is a social construct, and instead believe that sex is binary and immutable. Is the NEU effectively saying to all its fee-paying members that don’t want to go along with gender identity ideology that it regards them as ‘transphobic’ and no longer wants to represent them or defend their rights? As member relations campaigns go, it’s certainly daring.
And what about the policy’s effect on staffrooms up and down the country – will it have a chilling effect on free speech? The Telegraph spoke to a whistleblower in the teaching union who certainly thinks so: “I am extremely worried. I’m from a Left-wing background and I hate this nonsense. We need free speech. Women need safe spaces. If this definition is accepted, anyone who says: ‘You can’t logically self-identify as the opposite sex’, you’ll be a transphobe.” The source added: “I think it will mean that teachers will be too scared to speak up in schools and they will go along with the NEU policy.”
That’s certainly possible, although as Toby pointed out to the Telegraph, schools could just as easily end up getting swamped by discrimination claims from teaching staff who’ve been punished for refusing to use the preferred gender pronouns of a trans member of staff – the gender critical belief that sex is binary and immutable is, after all, a lawful and reasonable point-of-view, deserving of protection under the Equality Act 2010.
The FSU certainly hopes the NEU will reconsider adopting its new definition of ‘transphobia’, not least because if it ever refuses to stand up for its members who won’t endorse gender identity ideology it, too, could be found guilty of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
Graham Norton criticises John Cleese, dismisses idea of cancel culture
Graham Norton has criticised Monty Python star John Cleese for speaking out against cancel culture (Evening Standard, Independent, Mail, Metro). In an appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, BBC presenter Norton said: “John Cleese has been very public recently about complaining about what you can’t say. It must be very hard to be a man of a certain age who’s been able to say whatever he likes for years, and now suddenly there’s some accountability.” The host of The Graham Norton Show went on to argue that free speech should not be “consequence free”, stating that “cancelling” people is better described as “holding them to account”.
According to the Telegraph, Norton had previously “hit out against elements of cancel culture”, and “defended inviting JK Rowling onto his Virgin radio show, despite the controversies surrounding the Harry Potter author because of her involvement in the transgender debate”. That’s a remarkably generous rendering of what Norton actually said (Spiked). Asked about cancel culture during an interview with the Times last month, he responded: “What’s interesting is cancel culture is heavy on culture, but not so much on the cancel. Harvey Weinstein is in jail – he’s cancelled. But everyone else is working away. They have a quiet six months but keep working.”
Leaving aside the fact that Harvey Weinstein wasn’t cancelled for his opinions, but prosecuted for his actions – specifically, rape and sexual assault – the underlying premise of Norton’s argument seems to be that ordinary people have the same power, status and ‘bounce-back-ability’ as your average A-list Hollywood celebrity.
In the FSU’s experience, however, it’s almost always those who aren’t famous who fall victim to the worst excesses of cancel culture. Take Simon Isherwood, for instance, the train conductor and FSU member who was sacked after asking whether indigenous populations in African countries enjoy ‘black privilege’ after attending diversity training on ‘white privilege’. He didn’t endure a “quiet six months” only for his agent to then pop round one day and tell him he’d just secured a six-figure advance for his autobiography, and, by the way, would he like to go on the next series of Strictly Come Dancing. Yes, the FSU helped Simon win at Employment Tribunal against his ex-employer and, yes, we’re still fighting hard to ensure he receives a good settlement. But by Simon’s own admission, cancellation has cost him his job, his career, his livelihood (Mail). That’s not being held to account – it’s being ‘unpersoned’ in the fullest, Orwellian sense of that term.
So much for Norton “hitting out against elements of cancel culture”. As to his “defending inviting JK Rowling onto his Virgin radio show”, what he actually defended was his decision to turn the volume down on Rowling’s “problematic” views. Despite admitting that he’d never talked to her about “the transgender issue”, he said he imagined they would disagree, and that, as a result, he “wouldn’t have her on to air her views”. Why did he “have her on” at all? Because despite her “problematic” views, “she has the right to still wang on about her crime novel”.
No doubt men said much the same thing about Suffragettes at the turn of the nineteenth century; that ‘authoresses’ like JK Rowling were perfectly entitled to regale their husband’s guests with excerpts from their latest, entirely frivolous novellas over the dinner table, but that they really mustn’t muddle their pretty little heads with all the complicated affairs of state that the gentlemen would be thrashing out together over a spot of port once the ladies had retired to the drawing room. Poor Mr Norton. The last of the great Edwardians. Perhaps he thought no-one would notice the antiquated trend to his thoughts. As he himself might put it, “it must be very hard to be a man of a certain age who’s been able to say whatever he likes for years, and now suddenly there’s some accountability”.
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