Free Speech Union: weekly news round-up

Dear Mike Buchanan,

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week.

The FSU would love to hear from you!

Thanks to your support, we have been helping to defend our members’ free speech rights for more than two and a half years! But we rely on direct feedback from you to gain a deeper understanding of who are members are and where we should be targeting our support. We have put together a short survey to gather your thoughts and to tailor what we offer in the future. Please follow this link to complete the survey: FSU Membership Survey. We will share a summary of the results in a future FSU newsletter.

The FSU Christmas Special – book your tickets here!

Round up your comedy-loving friends and family for The FSU Christmas Special, a one-night-only extravaganza of comedy with a fabulous line-up, hosted in association with Comedy Unleashed – the home of free-thinking comedy. We are delighted to reveal that comedy legend Bobby Davro is our Master of Ceremonies for the evening. Bobby will be joined on stage by stand-up comedian, comedy entrepreneur and star of BBC’s They Think It’s All Over Lee Hurst, Comedy Unleashed favourite Mary Bourke, and comedian and GB News presenter Simon Evans. Join the fun with the FSU team and help us raise funds to defend freedom of speech. Please get your tickets by clicking here before they go on wider release. Tickets cost: £20 (FSU member full price), £15 (FSU member concessions), £25 (non-member full price), and £20 (non-member concessions)

Register for our November speakeasy with Neil Oliver here!

On 9th November, FSU General Secretary Toby Young will be joined in conversation by historian, author and television presenter Neil Oliver. After a successful career as a TV historian, Neil has become one of GB News’s most popular presenters, with social media clips of his monologues often clocking up several million views. He was an outspoken critic of the UK’s lockdown policy and has subsequently raised questions about the efficacy and safety of the mRNA Covid vaccines. Neil will be speaking to Toby about his transformation from pillar of the Establishment to anti-Establishment rebel. Members can register to receive the Zoom link here.

Salman Rushdie suffered life-changing injuries in Islamist stabbing

Salman Rushdie has lost the use of an eye and one of his hands following the attack in August by Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old Islamist who rushed the stage just as the author and British citizen was about to deliver a lecture in New York, repeatedly stabbing him in the neck, face, abdomen and back (BBC, Epoch Times, Express, FT, GB News, Mail, Times).

Speaking to Spain’s El País, Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, confirmed that the 75-year-old would survive the attack, but revealed for the first time the severity of the author’s injuries. “[His wounds] were profound, but he’s [also] lost the sight of one eye,” Wylie said. “He had three serious wounds in his neck. One hand is incapacitated because the nerves in his arm were cut. And he has about 15 more wounds in his chest and torso. So, it was a brutal attack.”

“That Rushdie might never be able to type again is particularly stomach-turning,” says Tom Slater (Spiked). It was, after all, “his writing that put a price on his head in the first place”. His Booker Prize-winning novel, The Satanic Verses, attracted the ire of Islamists the world over after it was published in 1988. Hardline clerics, community leaders and protesters condemned it as blasphemous. Copies were burnt, protests organised, and effigies of the author hanged, until eventually this agitation caught the attention of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who issued his fatwa in 1989, offering $3 million to anyone who would succeed in killing the author, or anyone involved in its publication and distribution.

Rushdie’s memoir of the time he spent in hiding, Joseph Anton, begins amid the chaos of safehouses, loaded guns, death threats and round-the-clock Special Branch protection, but concludes improbably, some 13 years later, with the threat level against the pseudonymous ‘Joseph’ lowered and the police “spinning on their heels and walking out of his life” with an abruptness that “made him laugh out loud”. Now, suddenly, it’s as if the book has an epilogue, a sickening twist: they got their man – or rather, another of their men. Because as the author reminds us, while his own “nightmare was long”, others too were made to suffer. Joseph the fugitive “thought every day” of William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, shot multiple times outside his home, of Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, stabbed in the neck, chest and hands, of his Japanese translator, Histoshi Igarashi, left to die in a pool of blood by a lift shaft at Tsukuba University; of the thirty-seven people killed when a mob seeking to murder his Turkish translator, Aziz Mesin, set fire to the Madimak Hotel in Sivas. It was, he said, “the world of books – literature itself – [that] was being vilified, shot, kicked, knifed, killed and blamed at the same time”.

There are “few moments where the solitary nature of life appears more inescapable than when one is clinging to it”, writes Darren Anderson (Unherd). Salman Rushdie must surely know that better than anyone, he says – the grim truth is that even as he lies recovering in an unknown location, surrounded by medical professionals and loved ones, “he is, as he has always been, in this struggle alone”.

Yet the theme of solidarity-at-a-distance, of vicarious support, the “friendly wave in his direction”, as Rushdie puts it, is rarely far from the surface in Joseph Anton. Towards the end of that novel, he recalls “a few blissful, carefree minutes” spent at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen with his friends, William Nygaard – at that point still recovering from the Islamist attack upon his life – and his Norwegian publisher Johannes Riis. Watching them riding the bumper cars, “shouting and smashing into one another like little boys”, Rushdie catches himself thinking that, in the end, all he wanted to know “was that he was at the centre of a group of people behaving as well, as nobly, as human beings can behave, and beyond that group at the centre of a larger narrative filled with people I didn’t know, would never know, people as determined as my bumper-car friends not to allow the darkness to prevail”.

The thoughts of everyone at the Free Speech Union are with Salman and his family. Despite the many assassination attempts, the killings and the maimings of those associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses, the “impossible dream”, as he once put it, of an “ordinary, banal life”, Rushdie has rarely missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of freedom of expression, a principle he has “embodied” – as the author Margaret Attwood put it in the wake of his stabbing – since Ayatollah Khomeini issued his decree. Embodied is right. The life-changing injuries he has suffered represent an attack not just on Salman’s freedom of expression, but on all of ours. We stand in solidarity with him now, and always.

Joe Kelly fundraiser – show your support!

Joe Kelly was convicted and sentenced in Scotland for contravening the Communications Act 2003, section 127(1)(b), which makes it a criminal offence to make an electronic post which is “grossly offensive”. Joe was at home on February 3, 2021, when he tweeted “the only good Brit soldier is a deed [i.e., dead] one, burn auld fella buuuuurn” along with a picture of Captain Tom. The tweet was only visible to his handful of followers for 20 minutes before he began to receive threats directed against him and his family and deleted it. It wasn’t fast enough, however: someone had already reported Joe to the police for his tweet. So began a long legal process (see Spiked for the full story and context).

Scotland’s prosecution service decided to prosecute Joe, and despite his counsel’s best attempts to defend his right to free speech (which includes, as Lord Sedley stated, the “heretical, unwelcome and provocative”) he was convicted and sentenced to a community payback order. Having had his appeal denied by the Scottish Courts and having been labelled an “example case” to deter others from “pressing the blue button” and posting allegedly offensive content, Joe is now seeking to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Yes, Kelly’s tweet was offensive. But the right to offend is a crucial element of free speech, and it certainly shouldn’t be the business of the police or the courts to protect people from hurty feelings. That’s why this case is about more than Joe Kelly’s own fight for justice. It’s about ensuring this “deterrence” (i.e., “chilling effect”) on free expression does not materialise. And it is about ensuring Scotland is not left behind as the only country in the UK in which it’s illegal to say something “grossly offensive”.

Joe’s counsel (Fred Mackintosh KC and Cameron Smith) will make the argument that a statement like that made by Joe by means of a public telecommunications system should not need to have artistic or political meaning for it be protected by the right to free speech laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights. If applied in the way that the Sheriff did in Joe’s case, the term “grossly offensive” is far too vague and his conviction will have a chilling effect. A person’s right to freedom of speech should not be subject to interference on this basis.

This is not a radical idea – in fact, the Law Commission of England and Wales has urged the UK Government to scrap section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 and replace it with another, less censorious law.

Any donations made to Joe’s crowdfunder are to fund the legal expenses associated with preparation of an application to the European Court of Human Rights. If permission to hear the case at the European level is granted, it is hoped that the remainder of the case will be funded by the Court’s own system of legal aid.

Join the fight and pledge your support here.

University of York drops initials from email addresses in “trans-friendly” move

The University of York has stopped using students’ initials for their emails and usernames. According to the Telegraph, the initiative is intended as a “trans-friendly” move, while the Mail report that “university bosses” believe the policy is “more inclusive”. The Metro, meanwhile, ran the story under the slightly misleading but undeniably entertaining headline: “Calling students by their names ‘too upsetting’.”

For many years York had a policy of using the first letters of students’ first names and surnames when creating their official emails and usernames. But in a move that York’s LGBTQ+ Network describes as “a massive win for trans students” (The Tab), university bosses have scrapped the practice on the basis that too many people are changing gender or asking to change their names for other reasons. From now on, the University will use randomly generated letters and numbers to assign email addresses to students.

Speaking to the Mail, the FSU’s General Secretary, Toby Young, said “it seems like a parody of political correctness gone mad – the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a Netflix series satirising the ideological capture of universities by woke cultists”.

Maybe so, but would even the most imaginative of modern satirists have thought to build into the plot a computerised identification system capable of protecting students from the psychologically harmful effect of incorporating their own initials in their email addresses?

To avoid inadvertently creating addresses and usernames that include profanity or hate speech, the University has made it clear that its new system will limit usernames to just three letters followed by three numbers. In addition, the University will no longer generate usernames using vowels or the letter ‘y’, thus ruling out virtually every known form of smirk-inducing, schoolyard naughtiness (e.g., “sex124”, “bum697”, etc.). Nevertheless, the threat remains of, say, an exclusionary “LGB” suddenly popping up without the “T” (Mail), or an “XX” letter combo triggering students with distressing thoughts of chromosomes and the female karyotype (Spiked). Thankfully, York seem to be alive to this danger – as the Mail reports, the University is now “asking students to report any combinations they think should be blacklisted”. (Although of course it’s highly unlikely that the University will be using the Mail’s term ‘blacklisted’ in any of its student-facing comms.)

York has also been keen to talk up the idea that using initials, which can change if students alter their gender while they are studying, will make the institution “a more inclusive place to work and study”, while also “improv[ing] students’ experience”. Whether that’s true or not, what we can say with absolute, cast-iron certainty is that there won’t be any upside to this initiative for university administrators, who will inevitably spend hours every day answering queries from students who’ve forgotten what their randomly generated email addresses are.

“Wouldn’t it be simpler,” asks Toby, “to just stick with the system that staff and students know and which everyone has got used to?” And if the University authorities want to cheer up trans students, “shouldn’t they just give them the money that they will inevitably have to spend dealing with the unintended consequences of introducing this crackpot idea”?

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Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

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