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.

Joe Kelly fundraiser – one last push to get the case up and running!

We know this is a tough case and not all our members will support us. But if you do, please consider donating to the Crowdfunder — with less than a week to go until the campaign closes, we really need one final push from members and supporters to help reach our funding target and get this important legal case up and running. The link to find out more about the case and pledge your support is here.

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”. Despite showing remorse — even confessing that this was one of the most stupid things he’d ever done in his life — and despite his counsel’s attempt to defend his right to free speech (which includes, as Lord Sedley stated, the “heretical, unwelcome and provocative”), Scotland’s prosecution service decided to throw the book at Joe, convicting and then sentencing him 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 — and the FSU is supporting him.

The case Joe’s counsel will make focuses on ensuring this “deterrence” (i.e., “chilling effect”) on free expression does not materialise. It will also ensure Scotland is not left behind as the only country in the UK in which it’s illegal to say something “grossly offensive”, which it will be if the Communications Act is repealed in the rest of the UK.

Statements made by means of a public telecommunications system, like Kelly’s tweet, should not need to have artistic or political meaning for them 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 Kelly’s case, the term “grossly offensive” is far too vague and his conviction will indeed have a chilling effect — a person’s right to freedom of speech should not be subject to interference on this basis.

Any donations made are to fund the legal expenses associated with preparing an application to the European Court of Human Rights. If permission to hear the case in Strasbourg is granted, we hope the remainder of the case will be funded by the Court’s own system of legal aid. You can pledge your support here.

FSU Christmas Comedy Night – book your tickets!

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, organised in association with Comedy Unleashed, the home of free-thinking comedy. The event takes place on Monday 12th December, 7pm — 10pm at the Backyard Comedy Club, Bethnal Green.

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 They Think It’s All Over Lee Hurst, Comedy Unleashed favourite Mary Bourke and comedian and Radio 4 personality Simon Evans. This event is open to the public, so please spread the word. Tickets on sale here.

Free Speech Cambridge book launch event – register for tickets here!

Free Speech Cambridge would like to invite FSU members to a friendly pre-Christmas drinks and celebration at the Potting Shed, Waterman pub in Cambridge (postcode: CB4 3AX) on Tuesday 6th December. The occasion will also be a book launch for Jerome Booth’s Have We All Gone Mad — an investigation of the rise of groupthink. We’ll chat to Jerome about all things free speech and leave plenty of time for general socialising and good cheer. Please arrive from 6pm with the talk starting at 7pm. Copies of Jerome’s book will be on sale, so please bring your wallets. To confirm attendance, and to join Free Speech Cambridge’s mailing list, please contact

Politically motivated financial censorship in the news… again

A County Court judge has refused to strike out a Christian organisation’s discrimination case against Barclays Bank, following spurious attempts by the multi-billion-pound corporation to have it thrown out (Belfast News Letter, Christian Concern). Core Issues Trust (CIT) is the only registered Charity in the UK currently offering counselling and therapeutic support to those leaving the LGBT community. The Christian organisation is alleging that a “co-ordinated harassment campaign by LGBT activists” back in 2020 caused Barclays to capitulate to demands that it cancel the group’s account (Critic, Forbes).

Barclays — which is regularly lauded by controversial LGBT charity Stonewall as one of the best performing employers for LGBT employees across the UK — had previously argued that it can terminate any bank account by giving two months’ notice without explanation and said there is no evidence that CIT has been discriminated against.

At the hearing in Belfast County Court, however, lawyers for the bank instead chose to challenge CIT’s case on technical, procedural grounds, arguing that a Belfast court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case. Having heard legal arguments from both sides, the judge rejected this application and decided the case would proceed to a full hearing in Belfast next month.

Elsewhere this week, ticketing website Eventbrite was accused of conducting a “campaign of cancellation” against gender critical events after pulling tickets for a book launch organised by Woman’s Place UK, and a screening of Adult Human Female, a documentary critiquing gender ideology (Telegraph, Reclaim the Net). In both cases, ticket holders were suddenly refunded their tickets, all trace of the event was removed from the Eventbrite website, and organisers were informed by Eventbrite’s Orwellian sounding “trust and safety team” that the event violated policies on “hateful, dangerous, or violent content”. Last month, an event organised by Sarah Phillimore, a barrister, and Graham Linehan, the comedy writer famous for Father Ted, to promote their book Transpositions — a collection of testimonies from people concerned about gender identity ideology — had its listing and tickets purged in an apparently identical fashion (Epoch Times, Scottish Daily Express, Telegraph).

Taken together, these incidents serve as a grim reminder that PayPal’s recent, headline-grabbing attempt to demonetise the FSU wasn’t some sort of aberration, but part of a global trend towards weaponising Big Tech and financial services systems to suppress dissent of every kind (Critic, Spectator, Spiked, Spiked). We saw it in the case of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shutting down the Freedom Convoy earlier this year (Spiked). But there are other, less high-profile instances of people with dissenting views being deplatformed by companies like Eventbrite, Ko-Fi, CrowdJustice, GoFundMe and Patreon.

As we hurtle towards a cashless society, the creeping trend of Big Tech platforms financially censoring groups or individuals who express dissenting views needs to be checked before it starts to become institutionally normalised. Indeed, if we don’t pass a law to rein in financial services providers soon, we risk the emergence of a Chinese-style social credit system in the UK, except instead of ideological dogma being enforced by the Communist authorities it will be enforced by woke capitalist corporations.

In a sign that politicians are beginning to wake up to the problem, earlier this month, Conservative MP Sally-Ann Hart proposed an amendment to the Financial Services and Markets Bill that would make it illegal for payment-processing companies to withhold or withdraw services from customers for purely political reasons. Following discussions with Andrew Griffith, the Bill minister, Sally-Ann withdrew the amendment because he promised to come back with a constructive proposal about how to address the problem.

That’s only good news if we keep up the pressure, urging legislators like Mr Griffith to do more to address this issue. That’s why we’re again asking you to send our template email to your MP and let them know how opposed you are to this new and sinister form of censorship. The link is here and the whole process only takes two minutes.

Now that you’re back, having popped off momentarily to send that email to your MP, it’s worth pointing out that the FSU’s Research Officer, Carrie Clark, has looked at the terms and conditions of the major payment processors and crowdfunding platforms and has given them a score out of 10 according to how friendly towards free speech they are – the link to the full briefing is here.

QAA urges universities to “decolonise” and acknowledge West’s “white supremacy”

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which advises universities on course standards and degree content, has for the first time introduced advice on decolonising courses (Epoch Times, GB News, LBC, Mail, Telegraph, Unherd). The independent charity’s so-called “subject benchmark statements” describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates across a total of 25 subject areas and are intended as “reference points in the design, delivery and review of academic programmes” (QAA).

This week it was reported that the body had updated its benchmarks, telling higher education providers to teach about “colonialism”, “white supremacy” and “class division”.

In one example, the QAA told universities that “computing” courses should address “how divisions and hierarchies of colonial value are replicated and reinforced” within the subject.

In the “geography” document academics are told that the “core values underpinning geography’s inclusive learning community” should be “informed” in part by theoretical concepts and ideas drawn from “critical race theory”; that is, a divisive, racialised offshoot of critical theory, which, in turn, was the brainchild of the ‘Frankfurt School’, a group of 20th century cultural Marxists.

The “classics and ancient history” benchmark advises that such courses “must now engage with and explain” the connections between the subject and “imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy and class division”.

Meanwhile, the QAA consultation document on “maths” curriculums suggests that they “should present a multicultural and decolonised view of mathematics, statistics and operational research, informed by the student voice”, while the equivalent document for “economics” invites respondents to consider whether students should be taught that it is “still predominantly a white, male and Western field”.

And so the long march through the institutions continues.

Reflecting on the significance of the QAA’s updates for the Mail, Professor Frank Furedi points out that in contrast with universities in totalitarian states like China, which promote government doctrine, our universities have always been autonomous and free to decide on their courses and their content. What charities like the QAA and, for that matter, the “egregiously woke” Advance HE, have exposed, however, is that in our “unusually centralised” system, bad ideas that emerge among one particular cadre of activists-cum-academics can quickly be integrated into the systems and procedures of other universities. That’s why Professor Furedi believes the QAA’s updated benchmark statements may end up dealing “a catastrophic blow to freedom of speech and the academic rigour it supports”, turning universities into “indoctrination factories” which take their cue from a de facto “central political body: the QAA”.

John Armstrong, Reader in Financial Mathematics at King’s College London, feels much the same way. The QAA’s attempts to embed ‘decolonisation’ into mathematics are not just “objectionable” on their own terms, but also “symptomatic of a more general trend for the charity to try and dictate what universities should teach” (Spectator, Mail). It’s telling, he says, that the QAA’s benchmark document defining the common mathematics curriculum “has grown in length by 50 per cent in just three years”. This top-down approach is “antithetical to the academically led approach that should be the hallmark of higher education” and is now “slowly homogenising university teaching and diminishing true diversity of thought”.

Speaking to Mark Steyn about the issue on GB News, FSU General Secretary Toby Young pointed out that the problem with all this talk about the need for peoples’ thought structures to be ‘decolonised’ is that it cuts both ways. Take the UK-based academics who prepared the QAA’s updated benchmark statements on the charity’s behalf — isn’t it the case that in “propagating the cult of woke”, as Toby put it, these 21st century beneficiaries of the enlightened, European notion of the liberal academy have done little more than demonstrate the extent to which their own minds have been colonised by the divisive, race baiting identity politics of the US higher education system’s grievance studies sector? Perhaps the doyenne of postcolonial theory, Franz Fanon, was right after all when he wrote in his magnum opus, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), that the problem with colonialism is that it is never “satisfied merely with emptying the native’s brain of all form and content” but that “by a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it”.

Music college tells students to report females who want single-sex spaces to ‘transphobe hotline’​

Why is it, the French philosopher Michel Serres once remarked, that we conceive of time as an irreversible line, yet we are always simultaneously making gestures that are archaic, modern and futuristic? Were he still alive he would no doubt have found much to puzzle over in the actions of an elite London music school that decided this week to deploy the uber modern, 21st century technology of the QR code as part of its brief, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to revive that once much-loved medieval tradition of witch-hunting.

As reported in the Mail, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) was “forced to issue an apology” after erecting a large sign on campus that urged students to “report” any fellow female students overheard either directly opposing transgender ideology or saying something that could be construed as indicating some sort of latent preference for single-sex toilets and changing rooms to a ‘transphobe hotline’.

The badly written sign got things off to an inflammatory start with a remarkably dehumanising question in which complex, multifaceted individuals are reduced to a particular set of apparently distasteful political beliefs: “What is a TERF [a derogatory term which stands for ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’]?” “TERF ideology”, the sign went on to explain, “is a specific form of transphobia. The primary TERF assertion is that trans women are not women, and accordingly have no place in women’s spaces. This ideology also affects trans men, as TERF’s assert [sic] that people assigned female at birth, but identify as male [sic], shouldn’t be allowed into women’s spaces either.”

The sign added that ICMP had a “zero-tolerance” approach to TERFs, before helpfully providing a QR code so students could use their smartphones to report delinquent peers to an official ‘Report and Support’ university complaints website. As the philosopher Kathleen Stock wryly remarked on Twitter: “Witch hunts have QR codes now. Find the witch, use the QR code, ‘report and support’. Modern life is wonderful, isn’t it?”

Thankfully, ICMP has since removed the sign and chief executive Paul Kirkham has issued an apology on its website, admitting “we got it wrong”.

Now might be a good time for Mr Kirkham and his colleagues in ICMP’s senior leadership team to reflect on the legal implications of the judgement handed down in Maya Forstater’s recent employment appeal tribunal.

Ms Forstater lost her job after posting a series of tweets in which she set out her ‘gender critical’ — or as ICMP might put it, “TERF” — beliefs that someone’s sex is biological and immutable and should not be conflated with their gender identity.

It was in a test case at the Employment Tribunal back in 2019 that Maya first attempted to establish that her tweets should be protected under the Equality Act 2010. Employment judge James Tayler ruled against Maya, saying such views — that sex is binary and immutable — were not “worthy of respect in a democratic society” (Critic).

Undeterred, Forstater appealed this judgement in the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where High Court judge Mr Justice Choudhury ruled that the judgment handed down by the original tribunal had “erred in law” and promptly sent the case back to the Employment Tribunal to decide whether the claim had been proved on the facts.

The significance of that ruling was wide-ranging because Mr Justice Choudhury carefully enunciated the proper parameters for the exercise of free speech in a democratic society, making clear that even if a belief has the potential to “offend, shock, or disturb” that is not enough for it to be deprived of protection under the Equality Act, which designates “religion or belief” as a protected characteristic (Times, Guardian).

Maya’s original case then went back to the Employment Tribunal so it could be reconsidered in light of the fact that gender critical beliefs are protected. Then, earlier this year, the Tribunal ruled that Maya’s employer had breached employment law by discriminating against Forstater in virtue of her possession of certain protected characteristic, i.e., her gender critical beliefs.

The ruling stated that gender-critical beliefs, including the belief that sex is immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity, was a protected philosophical belief. As Ms Forstater pointed out in a statement published after the judgement, her case “matters for everyone who believes in the importance of truth and free speech”. We are all “free to believe whatever we wish”, she added. “What we are not free to do is compel others to believe the same thing, to silence those who disagree with us or to force others to deny reality.”

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Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

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