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FREE SPEECH UNION NEWS

May 9, 2022

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s monthly newsletter in which we tell you about all the things we’ve achieved in the previous month.

The launch of our Scottish office on 21st April attracted favourable attention in the Times (here and here), the Scottish Daily Express, Reclaim the Net, the Epoch Times and the Daily Sceptic. It was particularly encouraging to see the enthusiasm on display below the line after the Times ran our Scotland launch as its top Scotland story – posters welcomed the move and were keen to know where they could sign-up.

The FSU opened its Edinburgh branch due to overwhelming demand from its Scottish members who are concerned that free speech is in peril north of the border. Those concerns are well-founded. As the Epoch Times pointed out in its coverage of our launch night, over the past few years we’ve seen the authorities convict a Scottish comedian for telling a bad joke, the University of Edinburgh rename a tower honouring David Hume due to his “racist” views, and a successful children’s author (who the FSU is currently supporting) forced to retrain as a truck driver for publicly backing JK Rowling’s gender critical views. Many are also concerned by the “chilling effect” of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act; an Act which, more than a year after receiving Royal assent, has thankfully yet to be activated. But as one of the members of our newly formed Scottish Advisory Council pointed out while throwing his support behind FSU Scotland in a barnstorming TimesThunderer, as and when that legislation is finally activated it will undoubtedly “shut down discussion of vital public importance such as the conflict between sex-based women’s rights and trans rights”.

Nor are these concerns the exclusive preserve of opponents of the present SNP Government. FSU Scotland has attracted widespread, cross-party support: SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC, education policy professor Lindsay Paterson, former Scottish Conservative deputy leader Murdo Fraser MSP and award-winning poet Jenny Lindsay have all recently joined our Advisory Board, where they will sit alongside former University of Edinburgh rector Iain Macwhirter, director of the Catholic Media Office Peter Kearney and former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars.

I hosted the launch event and it included a keynote address from Jacob Mchangama, the internationally renowned free speech advocate and author of the highly acclaimed new book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. We were joined by a distinguished panel and, together, we debated the importance of free speech and fielded questions from the audience. We had a great turnout, and the FSU team met with many passionate people who care deeply about protecting free speech in Scotland. There was real enthusiasm in the room for what we’re trying to do, and the overwhelming impression we came away with was that there’s a vital need for the FSU in Scotland. You can see a short YouTube video in which various members of our Scottish Advisory Council talk about why free speech is important here.

Our response to the University of Aberdeen’s no-platforming of Alex Salmond

As though to illustrate the need for FSU Scotland, the day after our launch Alex Salmond was no-platformed by the University of Aberdeen. Mr Salmond had been due to speak at the Aberdeen University Student Union Golf Club on the evening of 22nd April, but at the last minute the booking was cancelled, forcing him to give his talk in a car park outside the venue. Mr Salmond said that the reason he was no-platformed was because transrights activists at the University who disagree with his position on proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act had petitioned the Golf Club to cancel the event. This no-platforming was, he said, a “sinister attack on freedom of speech”. Mr Salmond’s analysis was subsequently confirmed when Alisa Koester, the student President of the Aberdeen University Students Association, told a newspaper: “AUSA stands in full solidarity with the trans community who raised concerns about the event. Our campus should be a safe place where all our students feel welcome.”

I wrote to the University of Aberdeen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor George Boyne, to point out that the no-platforming of Mr Salmond was contrary to Scottish law, contrary to the University of Aberdeen’s own free speech policy and a breach of his right to freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights. The letter concluded with two requests: first, that Professor Boyne ask the golf club to apologise to Mr Salmond and reschedule his talk as soon as practically possible; and second, that the university issue a statement affirming its commitment to free speech and pointing out to the student activists who no-platformed Mr Salmond that attempting to silence those with whom one disagrees is an action that has no place at any university. You can read that letter here and see the coverage it got in the Times here.

Rt Hon Lord David Frost to join the FSU’s Advisory Council

The FSU is delighted to announce that the Rt Hon Lord David Frost is joining our advisory panel. Lord Frost has been a member of the House of Lords since August 2020. From March 2021 until December 2021, he was also Minister of State at the Cabinet Office. Before that, Lord Frost was the United Kingdom’s Chief Negotiator for Exiting the European Union, led the UK’s Brexit talks with the European Union and was instrumental in negotiating a free trade agreement during the Brexit transition period. Lord Frost has also recently accepted a Senior Fellowship with the think tank Policy Exchange and has repeatedly stood up for free speech, most recently in his Telegraph column where he expressed reservations about the Online Safety Bill.

Non-crime hate incidents: an update on our recent legal success story

Two years ago, one of our members, Kevin Mills, was recorded as having committed a ‘non-crime hate incident’ (NCHI) by the police after he refused to work with a customer who threw a scalding mug of tea at him. In last month’s newsletter we reported our success in getting that NCHI permanently deleted from Kevin’s police records. But as we pointed out on Twitter at the time, it was definitely a case of one down, many more to go. That’s because police forces in England and Wales aren’t required to notify someone if an NCHI is recorded against their name. Given that close to a quarter of a million NCHIs have been recorded since 2014, it’s likely that tens of thousands of people are still unwittingly carrying one around on their records (and they can show up if an employer carries out an Enhanced Disclosure and Barring check). The FSU’s success in the case of Kevin Mills helped push the issue back into the media spotlight in April: the Spectator, Spiked, the Sun and the Express all ran pieces about NCHIs that cited the FSU’s casework and research. The good news is that off the back of that exposure we’ve recently seen an uptick in the number of people reaching out to us via our various social media channels – i.e., Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – for support and advice.

Nottingham holds out on Sewell degree

Nottingham University is still resisting calls to reverse its decision not to award an honorary degree to former government race tsar Dr Tony Sewell, claiming Sewell’s presence would “overshadow” graduation ceremonies and upset students. We wrote to the EHRC asking them to investigate whether Nottingham’s decision was motivated by racial prejudice; 50 Tory MPs also wrote to the University, highlighting the “absurdity” of granting honorary degrees to disgraced former Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Uighur re-education camp denying ex-Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming while rescinding its offer of the same to Dr Sewell “simply because he earned the ire of a few frustrated ideologues for his widely welcomed work” on the Government’s race report.

Gillian Philip fundraiser

We’ve launched a CrowdJustice fundraiser on behalf of our member Gillian Philip, a writer of young-adult fiction whose contract was terminated after she expressed the heretical belief that biological sex is real. Her sin was adding the hashtag #IStandwithJKRowling to her Twitter account, which immediately led to demands that her publisher dump her and, needless to say, it did just that. Gillian’s contract was ended, and her agent abandoned her, just one month after the death of her husband. The effect on her was shattering. Today she works as a courier and an HGV driver to make ends meet. Please help Gillian fight for her freedom of speech by giving what you can to the crowdfunder.

FSU calls for an inquiry into Cardiff University

The FSU has been signal-boosting a petition to the Welsh Senedd, asking for an inquiry into Cardiff University’s failure to protect members of its academic staff who received death threats after they publicly queried the University’s membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme. We have written again to the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff about this, querying why the University is refusing to properly investigate the bullying and harassment of these academics. We also wrote to Welsh Minister of Education Jeremy Miles MS. Please sign the petition. If it gets 10,000 signatures, it will be considered for a debate in the Senedd.

U-Turn on U-Turn on ‘conversion therapy’

In a double U-turn – a 360° U-turn? – the Government said it planned to drop its pledge to ban conversion therapy, and then announced hours later that the ban would in fact proceed but with a carve-out for gender dysphoria. We welcomed the initial announcement and were relieved when the Government made it clear that the ban wouldn’t extend to referring adolescents with gender dysphoria to therapists. You can read our response to the Government’s consultation about banning conversion therapy here. In our submission we said: “Our concern is that ‘conversion therapy’, as currently under discussion, is too vaguely defined to form the basis of a new law and such a law would inevitably have a chilling effect on free speech.”

The Online Safety Bill returns to Parliament for its second reading

The origins of the Online Safety Bill (OSB) lie in the troubling death of Molly Russell, a teenager who took her own life after viewing images of suicide and self-harm on Instagram. Theresa May’s government felt something should be done, and now, after five years, a White Paper, a consultation, a draft Bill, a joint committee of Parliamentarians, a report by that committee and a separate inquiry by the DCMS Select Committee, we’ve finally arrived at the Bill’s Second Reading in the House of Commons.

The FSU has been tracking the legislation’s progress through Parliament. You can find our briefings about the Bill here.

To coincide with the OSB’s second reading on 19th April, the FSU issued a press release which you can read in full here. It sets out the FSU’s current view, which is that although the latest iteration of the Bill makes welcome provision to protect children from illegal content on the internet, it doesn’t afford online freedom of speech and expression the robust, meaningful protections it needs.

Last month, I was invited to discuss the risks posed by the Bill for Christians in an interview with Christian Today, saying that its requirement that social media companies should remove ‘legal but harmful’ speech would “almost certainly include some posts expressing orthodox Christian beliefs, although the big social media companies need no encouragement when it comes to removing them”.

April also saw the publication of a personal essay by Dr Frederick Attenborough, the FSU’s new Communications Officer. The paper set out his concerns regarding the Bill’s proposed regulatory architecture and suggests a series of focused and limited amendments that would effectively require both Ofcom, and the online service providers it will soon be regulating, to more robustly protect and preserve online freedom of speech.

Over the next few months, we’ll be engaging with our allies in both chambers of Parliament to ensure that the final version of the Bill more adequately balances the need to protect people from harm with protecting freedom of speech.

Slap down SLAPPs

Baroness Tina Stowell, Chair of House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, said the committee had heard “concerning evidence” about the chilling effect that SLAPPs are having on free speech. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and SLAPPs are heavy-handed legal actions used by wealthy individuals or companies to intimidate and deter journalists from reporting on their wrongdoing. Stowell described both costs and case numbers as “out of control” and said the committee would be “writing to the Government to encourage urgent action on this issue”. The FSU is responding to the Government’s consultation on SLAPPs, which you can find here.

The FSU’s response to a Home Office email asking staff to state their pronouns

Last month the FSU wrote to Matthew Rycroft (above), the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, to complain about a directive issued to Home Office staff. Guido Fawkes and the Times have the details of the FSU’s involvement, but the gist of the story is that staff in the Visa, Status and Information Services Department were sent a standardised format for their email signatures with the suggestion that they include their preferred gender pronouns. This ‘suggestion’ was followed by an email from a manager that stated: “In case anybody wasn’t sure, this change does affect us and so we need to alter our signatures to match the template on the email.” In the template the manager was alluding to, he had included his own name followed by “(he, him, his)”. So was this directive just a clumsily worded ‘suggestion’, or an attempt to compel employees to engage in a certain type of expression? This isn’t semantic nit-picking. It matters legally. Any attempt at compulsion would not only have breached the Equality Act 2010, but would have violated those employees’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience and free speech as stipulated in Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In our letter to Mr Rycroft we pointed out the various laws this demand breached. The letter continued: “We trust that this directive was based on a misunderstanding by an overzealous manager and is not official Home Office policy. Indeed, we think it cannot be as you have not included your pronouns in your biography on the UK government website. However, we would ask you to affirm that no Home Office employee has been penalised for refusing to include their pronouns in their email signatures.” The Home Office responded by clarifying that it was only a ‘suggestion’ and not mandatory. You can read the FSU’s letter in full here.

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