Free Speech Union – monthly newsletter

Dear Mike Buchanan,

Latest FSU research suggests public libraries breaching freedom of speech commitment!

It was great to see our hot off the press research briefing, Not on Our Shelves – Soft Censorship in Local Authority Libraries, gaining traction over the weekend. As the Telegraph rightly says, it’s the first widespread snapshot of the effect censorious trans activists are having on our public libraries.

The FSU’s Research Officer, Carrie Clark, randomly selected 49 English local authorities with searchable online library catalogues and searched them for 10 books – five titles written from a gender critical (GC) point of view and five from a trans rights (TR) point of view. We found that the libraries in our sample stock more TR books overall and stock more TR texts than is justified by the low demand from members of the public to borrow these titles and not enough GC titles, given the much higher demand for them.

So why did we undertake this research?

Members and supporters may recall that back in August it emerged that following receipt of a “formal grievance” from a single member of staff, Labour-run Calderdale Council (metropolitan borough population: 206,600) removed a variety of books – all critical of gender ideology and transgender activism – from public view at the Council’s 12 public libraries and placed them out of sight in an off-limits storage space.

It would be troubling enough were this ‘just’ an egregious, one-off aberration. But a guidance document issued to libraries across the country cites this DIY censorship approvingly while advising staff on how to prevent “LGBTIQ+ users” seeing “offensive” gender-critical books.

The “best practice” guidance, titled Welcoming LGBTIQ+ users: advice for public library workers, has been shared among council-run public libraries across the country and contains recommendations on how to handle “transphobic books”.

Produced in 2022 by an Islington-based “LGBTIQ+ library” called Book 28, the document urges librarians not to promote works by gender-critical authors and told them how to mitigate the “risk” that LGBT readers might encounter these “offensive” titles on shelves. The guidance also suggests that staff limit the number of gender-critical books they stock.

It was in this context that the FSU decided to take a closer look at how the public library sector is approaching freedom of speech on controversial issues of interest to the public.

While our findings do not constitute a formal statistical study, Carrie did identify patterns that suggest a bias towards TR over GC books in English libraries.

For instance, over two thirds (67%) of the local authority library catalogues sampled list more TR books than GC books.

We also found that although library stock policies are more than matching TR book demand, they are failing to meet demand for GC books.

If our sample is representative of the wider sector, then there is a clear bias in England’s local authority libraries in favour of TR books and against GC books.

We think the source of that bias is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), the professional association for librarians which has been captured by critical social justice ideology and LGBT+ activist groups like Book 28.

There are of course many sensible librarians out there who believe public libraries shouldn’t take sides on contentious political issues. But unfortunately too many libraries have been captured by woke activists behaving like bespectacled zealots in the culture war.

Like many of our institutions, public libraries are losing sight of their original purpose – which was to serve the public in a politically neutral way – and embracing an ideology imported from the United States which prompts them to come down on one side of current political debates.

Can Words Really Hurt – event video now available!

Our Edinburgh Speakeasy was recorded live on Wednesday 25th October at The Counting House venue. Joining us to discuss the threat posed to free speech by growing attempts to police ‘hate speech’ were Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Holly Lawford-Smith, the editor of Scottish Legal News, Kapil Summan, and Lecturer in Public Law at the University of Glasgow, Dr Michael Foran.

You can now watch the event on our YouTube channel by clicking here (and don’t forget to subscribe while you’re there).

Gender conversion therapy ban – use our campaigning tool to write to your MP!

Perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part, but I had assumed that the Government’s bill to ban conversion therapy had quietly been killed off, not least because time had all but run out to publish draft legislation before the King’s Speech in November.

Alas, reports of the bill’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The latest news, as reported in the Times, is that Rishi Sunak has now decided to resurrect the bill. This is disappointing news. As an organisation, we’ve been lobbying hard against this behind the scenes, while thousands of our members and supporters also joined the fight earlier this year, using our digital campaigning tool to email their MPs flagging up the unintended consequences of banning ‘conversion therapy’ if it’s defined too broadly.

Because it’s the difficulty of defining ‘conversion therapy’ that creates the problem for anyone concerned about protecting free speech. After all, what most people think of as ‘conversion therapy’ – using force or sinister psychological techniques to try and ‘convert’ people away from being gay – is already against the law. It follows, therefore, that if the Government thinks it’s necessary to change the law to ban ‘conversion therapy’ it must have something broader in mind.

One obvious concern is that people of faith, particularly religious leaders, might become vulnerable to prosecution if they tried to dissuade a member of their community from becoming actively gay, or offered to pray for them, or invited other members of their community to pray for them. Provided such attempts at persuasion don’t extend beyond speech, why should they be banned? What right does the state have to police what people of faith say to other members of their communities?

In the state of Victoria in Australia, which banned ‘conversion therapy’ in 2021, it is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail for a religious leader to have a one-to-one conversation with a member of their congregation in which they pressurise them to practice celibacy rather than act on their feelings of same-sex attraction.

But even if you don’t share that concern, there are other risks associated with such a bill. We know that some advocates of the ban want it to cover any attempt to dissuade children suffering from gender dysphoria from having irreversible medical procedures, such as a double mastectomy. A bill that prevents parents from trying to talk their children out of such procedures is clearly unacceptable from a free speech point of view.

And what about doctors? In the past few years, a ‘gender affirmative model’ has become the norm in clinical settings like the Tavistock Clinic. Faced with cases of gender distress, this approach encourages clinicians to affirm rather than question a child’s chosen gender identity, before then putting them on a medical pathway that can have lifelong, irreversible consequences. We now know that even puberty blockers, intended to delay the onset of puberty so children suffering from gender dysphoria can have more time before deciding whether to have surgery, can cause lifelong harms, such as bone disease and infertility.

The risk is that a poorly drafted bill would effectively criminalise parents, teachers and doctors who deviate from the ‘affirmative’ approach. (In the state of Victoria, it’s a crime for a parent to refuse to support their child’s request for puberty blockers.) Even a carefully drafted bill would be in danger of being amended by members of the LGBTQ+ lobby as it went through parliament so it ended up banning ‘conversion therapy’ of that kind.

We are therefore asking our members and supporters to write to their MPs urging them to advise Rishi Sunak not to publish this bill. Why open this can of worms? Conversion therapy is already illegal in this country and any attempt to extend the ban in the vain hope of winning over ‘progressive’ voters would inevitably be hijacked by woke activists and end up having a chilling effect on free speech.

Please email your MP using our campaigning tool to share these concerns.

The link to the campaigning tool is here.

Christmas Comedy Benefit – tickets now available!

Our annual Comedy Benefit will take place just before Christmas on Wednesday 20th December. Our MC for the evening is FSU favourite Dominic Frisby and he’ll be joined on stage by a fantastic line-up: Francis Foster, Daniel O’Reilly, Tania Edwards and Alistair Williams. Come and let your hair down with the FSU staff as we celebrate another successful year defending free speech. Tickets here.

Westminster Declaration delivered to PM, warns of rise of ‘Censorship Industrial Complex’

It was great to see the Westminster Declaration gaining traction this month (NY PostTelegraphTimes).

I was one of the signatories to the document which included figures from all sides of the political spectrum, including the biologist Richard Dawkins, historians Niall Ferguson and Robert Tombs, economist Yanis Varoufakis, philosopher Slavoj Zizek, comedian John Cleese, author Jordan Peterson and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Despite our fundamental political and ideological disagreements, we felt it was important to speak as one against “the encroaching forces of censorship”, as the Declaration puts it, so we can maintain our ability to openly debate and challenge one another

The Westminster Declaration Says:

Across the globe, government actors, social media companies, universities, and NGOs are increasingly working to monitor citizens and rob them of their voices. These large-scale coordinated efforts are sometimes referred to as the ‘Censorship-Industrial Complex’.

This complex often operates through direct government policies. Authorities in India and Turkey have seized the power to remove political content from social media. The legislature in Germany and the Supreme Court in Brazil are criminalising political speech. In other countries, measures such as Ireland’s ‘Hate Speech’ Bill, Scotland’s Hate Crime Act, the UK’s Online Safety Bill, and Australia’s ‘Misinformation’ Bill threaten to severely restrict expression and create a chilling effect.

These are what you might call direct government policies, and, as such, are at least nominally subject to democratic votes. But they represent only the visible part of that much larger, insidious system that the Declaration refers to as the Censorship Industrial Complex.

Earlier this year, the journalist Matt Taibbi began compiling a top-50 style ranking of the ‘main players’ in the new global censorship eco-system.

You almost certainly haven’t heard of the Trusted News Initiative (TNI), for instance, yet it sits at #23 in Matt’s list. As I point out in the Spectator this week, the TNI is a BBC-led consortium of the world’s most powerful news, social media and technology companies that seeks to cleanse the internet of ‘mis-’ and ‘disinformation’. It carries out this mission by doing its best to discredit sites that challenge the prevailing narrative on topics like lockdowns, Covid vaccines, electoral fraud, the Ukraine war, and climate change.

Then, at #37, we have the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a shadowy, UK-based, government-funded organisation that, according to Taibbi, “announces openly that its strategy is to push major digital marketing clients to redirect their online ad spending”. Taxpayers’ money is being funnelled through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to the GDI, which compiles a “dynamic exclusion list” – or “blocklist” – of mostly conservative publications and then feeds that list to advertising agencies with the aim of persuading them to steer clear.

I could go on. And on. But I won’t. At least, not here. Because on Wednesday 1st November, I’ll be delivering the Contrarian Prize lecture at Bayes Business School. During my talk, entitled, ‘Freedom of Speech and Censorship: Examining the Tensions between open discourse and harmful content’, I’ll be reflecting on the work the FSU is now engaged in, monitoring the rise of ‘disinformation trackers’ like the TNI and the GDI, and arguing that the efforts to suppress misinformation, disinformation and ‘hate speech’ nearly always backfire and undermine democratic discourse.

Responding to the lecture will be Dr Mark Honigsbaum, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at City, University of London, and Jemima Kelly, columnist at the Financial Times. The event will be chaired by Cindy Yu, Assistant Editor of the Spectator. The lecture is now sold out, but I’ll post a link to it online in the next monthly newsletter.

FSU’s weekly podcast now available!

The latest episode of the FSU’s weekly podcast, That’s Debatable! is now available to download for free – click here to listen to the episode in full.

This week’s talking points include Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley being called in by the Home Secretary for what civil servants used to call “a meeting without coffee” to explain his force’s light-touch policing of pro-Palestinian protests on the streets of London, where calls for “Muslim armies” to commence “Jihad” against Israel were clearly audible.

Hosts Tom and Ben also discuss the Westminster Declaration and review some of the latest trends from the FSU’s casework dataset. Over the past three years we’ve taken on 2,250+ cases of people who’ve been penalised for expressing their perfectly lawful views, so our case files constitute arguably the most complete and compelling evidence yet compiled on the phenomenon of cancel culture in an advanced Western liberal democracy.

New Free Speech Tsar for English Universities now in post!

There are “persistent and widespread concerns” that many in higher education are being silenced, “either by the activity of the university or by its inactivity”, the new freedom of speech champion for English universities, Prof Arif Ahmed, has warned.

In his first major speech as Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students (OfS) this month, Professor Ahmed set out his priorities for the role.

“Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental to higher education,” he said, adding: “The core mission of universities and colleges is the pursuit of knowledge, and the principles of free speech and academic freedom are fundamental to this purpose.

“But there are now persistent and widespread concerns that many in higher education are being silenced, either by the activity of the university or by its inactivity.”

Prof Ahmed also said his team at the OfS will take a “broadly viewpoint neutral approach” and will protect the “lawful speech rights of speakers at universities”.

“It makes no difference at all,” he continued, “whether you are in favour of Brexit or against it, what side you take on statues or pronouns or colonialism, or abortion or animal rights, or Ulez – if you do it within the law.”

It’s great news that Prof Ahmed is now in post. His appointment by the Government earlier this year followed the passage into law of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act.

The legislation created an enforcement mechanism to uphold and promote free speech.

The appointment of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to the Office for Students – i.e., the role Prof Ahmed now holds – creates a ‘first port of call’ for students and academics who believe their speech rights have been breached.

The Act also introduced a new statutory tort, whereby students and academics will be able to sue universities in the County Court if their speech rights are breached.

This vital piece of legislation is something the FSU campaigned for over the past three years. We lobbied for the Bill when the Government was weighing up whether it was needed, advised the Government on what to include in it, defended it from critics in both Houses of Parliament, helped to amend it and, finally, mobilised our allies in Parliament to get it over the line.

About 20% of the 2,250+ cases we’ve dealt with in the past three years have involved universities and in almost every one the student or academic who’s got into trouble would have been in a stronger position if this new law had been on the statute books.

The FSU’s first South West Speakeasy – tickets now available!

We are delighted to announce the details of our first Regional Speakeasy in the South West of England. FSU members and the wider public are invited to gather for a debate and a drink in Exeter on Wednesday 29th November. You can get your tickets here.

Our speakers will be Professor Doug Stokes of the University of Exeter and Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, the director of campaign group Don’t Divide Us. They’ll discuss what the campaign to ‘decolonise’ really means and consider its implications for truth-seeking, equality and freedom of expression.

We do hope that large numbers of members will be able to get to Exeter for this event, which will include a stimulating discussion and the chance to meet other free speech enthusiasts from the region. There will be a pay bar at the venue.

P.S. Members in the Cambridge area are invited to attend a gathering on Thursday 16th November of the Free Speech Cambridge group, where the special guest will be author and campaigner Laura Dodsworth. Tickets are free, but you must reserve a spot here.

Kind regards,

Toby Young

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.