I’m a member of the Free Speech Union (FSU) and urge others to join too. They’re doing some excellent work. Their latest news round-up:
Dear Mike Buchanan,
Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter. This newsletter is a brief round-up of the free speech news of the week sent to our members.
The Value of Life
Lord Sumption, former Supreme Court Judge, has faced criticism for articulating his view that “the older you are, the less the value of your life because there’s less of it left.” When challenged by a woman with stage four cancer on BBC’s The Big Questions, who accused Sumption of claiming her life was not valuable, Sumption interrupted: “I didn’t say it wasn’t valuable, I said it was less valuable.” Some commentators came to his defence, and Sumption himself clarified on Good Morning Britain that he was making a point about the value placed on lives by health economists and policymakers, not expressing a judgement about a person’s intrinsic value. He said: “It doesn’t mean that people are morally worth less, it doesn’t mean that they are worth less in the eyes of God or in the eyes of their fellow citizens.”
Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill argues that the persecution of lockdown sceptics has become a new form a demonology. As in past times of plague, which saw any who expressed unorthodox opinions accused of being “agents of the kingdom of evil”, today’s “lockdown fanatics” seem to think that, as bad as Covid might be, “the plague of heresy is greater.” But, O’Neill concludes, “the destruction of free discussion harms society far more than incorrect opinion or predictions do, because it limits the space for critical interrogation of public policy and for entertaining the possibility that what we are doing is wrong.”
Free speech on campus
Twenty-one Conservative MPs signed a letter to Boris Johnson asking him to reform public funding for Students Unions, which, according to the MPs, are at the “forefront of efforts to limit freedom of speech variously by censoring poetry and publications, barring speakers or insisting on approving their speeches in advance.” In a parallel move, MP David Davis called for the government to bring forward a bill to protect free speech on university campuses, pointing out that great scientific advances come from challenging orthodoxy: “The cancel culture, the unwillingness to hear uncomfortable opinions, the refusal of platforms to people you disagree with, puts all this at risk. Universities, of all places, should never allow the suppression of free speech.” He gave a ten-minute speech in the House of Commons which can be watched in full on YouTube.
Sir Michael Barber, outgoing Chairman of the Office for Students, had some strong words for university vice chancellors, cautioning them against “the pitfalls of rigid intellectual orthodoxy, groupthink and ‘won’t fit in here’ mindsets. If universities come to be seen as intellectually intolerant hot houses for mono-perspectives, they will not thrive, nor represent society.”
The right to offend
UnHerd this week published several excellent pieces related to free speech. French journalist Agnes Poirer explored the continuing fear among French teachers following the beheading of Samuel Paty in October; trans writer Debbie Hayton defended Abigail Schreier’s book Irreversible Damage, after the Trans Writers’ Union denounced a favourable review of the book in the Irish Independent as “harmful to transgender people”; and Andrew Doyle defended obscenity. Editor Freddie Sayers also interviewed FSU member Will Knowland, who stands by his decision not to remove the YouTube video of the lesson he was forbidden to teach his students – a decision that ultimately got him sacked from Eton.
New York University Professor and FSU member Mark Crispin Miller is bringing a defamation lawsuit against 19 of his colleagues who wrote a letter calling on the University to conduct an expedited review of his conduct, with the aim of removing his academic freedom. They accuse him of “intimidation tactics, abuses of authority, aggressions and microaggressions, and explicit hate speech”, with particular reference to his suggestion that students look at the science behind mask mandates. Prof Miller discussed his ordeal in a podcast this week. A petition in support of Prof Miller’s right to academic freedom, which we have already circulated once to FSU members, has reached nearly 30,000 signature, and donations to his legal fund can be made here. In his own words: “This is not just about me. We’re living in a moment when academic freedom and free speech are at grave risk.”
The Eyeopener, a student newspaper at Ryerson University in Toronto, has ignored the deadline of 14 January to respond to the human rights complaint made by FSU member Jonathan Bradley. Bradley, a journalism student, was sacked from the newspaper after a former classmate shared screenshots of tweets in which he expressed his Catholic beliefs. The editor told Bradley that the LGBT community “would no longer feel safe if you are associated with the publication.”
After being barred from Amazon Web Services, Parler has found a new home with Epik, a web hosting company that also hosts rivel platform Gab, and video hosting site Bitchute. Meanwhile, Twitter has been accused of a double standard for banning President Trump from its platform, while allowing the Ayatollah Khamenei to continue tweeting.
Tesla founder Elon Musk, who last week called Big Tech the “de facto arbiter of free speech”, endorsed the suggestion that Big Tech “has to make the distinction between banning hate speech and banning speech it hates.” Historian Niall Ferguson argued in the Spectator that the excessive power now wielded by FATGA (Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple) in the public square was inevitable and said that what’s needed is “some kind of First Amendment for the internet.”
Joe Biden inaugurated
Joe Biden made his first speech as President of the United States, calling for tolerance and humility, but as the Chicago Tribune pointed out, the speech was as notable for what it lacked: “A full-throated commitment to defending the core values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which include the right of all Americans to speak their minds without fear of retribution.”
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