Campaign news

Equality Act is now free speech’s surprising friend

(09.02.24) We have produced and shared statements on two of the extraordinary cases we mention above: do have a look, as they are surprisingly entertaining (in a “how could they do that” sense) – as well as horrifying.

Fahmy case

Meade case

A statement on the Jo Phoenix/Open University triumph for free speech will be out soon.

We are actually quite optimistic that the whole environment for free speech at our universities is about to improve, and terrible injustices such as Kathleen Stock, Steven Greer and Jo Phoenix suffered will be much harder to repeat.

We’re busy spreading the word about universities’ duties

(30.01.24) We’ve been busy campaigning for better free speech protection while universities are thinking about how to deal with the revised law.

We have been working to communicate to institutions quite how onerous their obligations are, as now is the time that they will be looking closely at their duties and how to implement them in the run up to the 1 August deadline. Have a look at the statements we have sent to:

Universities

Colleges

Students’ unions

We have written to the Russell Group and Universities UK about this – see our Russell Group letter here. Our letters to universities, colleges and students’ unions have covered similar ground.

The OfS is expected to produce guidance on various aspects of this, and we have been writing to them about the need to give detail about the practical implications of the law so universities etc understand what they actually have to do. List of the practical requirements are at Part 3 of our University etc statements.

New free speech law in effect on 1 August: optimism and a lot to do

(20.01.24) It has emerged that the new provisions in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 will become law on 1 August 2024. These increase the duties on English universities and other providers to protect free speech, and importantly bring in a scheme for complaints to the Office for Students (OfS) and the right to sue universities for free speech failures in the courts. This is going to dramatically focus institutions’ minds.

The full force of the free speech requirements will also apply to colleges and students’ unions, which is good news.

Further, following recent ground-breaking Equality Act cases, universities have to do the following in order to avoid committing unlawful discrimination and harassment. These cases have reminded us all that employers are liable for discrimination and harassment by their employees unless they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent it.

  • Work to prevent their employees and others from attacking each other for their viewpoints. This particularly applies to online pile-ons.
  • Not allow their disciplinary processes to be used as tools of wrongful free speech suppression.
  • Not officially disapprove of viewpoints on controversial matters, as this can quickly constitute harassment or discrimination against dissenters. For instance, two cases have now held that conflating gender-critical views with transphobia can itself be harassment when stated in the wrong context.
  • This leads on to no enforcing contested viewpoints or agendas (as this will disadvantage dissenters and lead to bullying of them) except of course when actually obliged to by the law. The convener of an online meeting was criticised by the Employment Tribunal in one case for expressing personal views in solidarity with one side of a toxic debate: a good example of the problems taking sides causes. While it appears he was sincere in attempting to prevent inappropriate behaviour (and he was not himself held to have harassed the victim), the Tribunal stated that his taking sides provided “the basis, or opened the door, for the subsequent petition and the comments” which constituted the harassment.

These lead inevitably to a requirement to adopt sufficient institutional neutrality in order to avoid actions which lead to unlawful discrimination and harassment. Taking sides in a polarised debate quickly leads to unlawfulness. As readers will understand, this is groundbreaking.

The law is an ass, but not in these cases.

Know your Free Speech Rights statement published

(08.01.24) Our related campaign Best Free Speech Practice (www.bfsp.uk) has published an important “Know Your Rights” statement for academics, students and indeed universities. It has condensed these complex legal issues to one page, which can be used in various ways by the free speech campaigns out there, including for campaigning on campus, and is as far as we know unique.

 See the statement here: https://bfsp.uk/kyr.  A longer (two page) version, which is more technical and more aimed at those who have a current problem, can be found at www.bfsp.uk/universities-and-free-speech.

We are convinced that the various university free speech campaigns could be so much stronger if we work closely together, and a key project for this year is trying to help this happen. With this in mind, we have co-logo’d the KYR statement for our friends at the brilliant Academics for Academic Freedom to distribute widely among their extensive university networks and membership.

Kings College London: row over disadvantaging those not actively supporting EDI agendas in promotion applications

(04.12.23) There has been a row about King’s College London (“KCL“) requiring applicants for promotion to submit information about their activity to support the university’s “equality, diversity and inclusion ambitions” and, in a list of appropriate examples, mentioning “participating in equality, diversity and inclusion activity” such as Stonewall and other LGBTQ groups.

We have written to KCL asserting that it appears that:

  • Disadvantaging applicants because of their viewpoints, or not wanting to express support for organisations some of whose ideologies they, along with a substantial proportion the population, do not agree with;
  • Seeking information in order to put themselves in a position to do the aforesaid; and
  • creating a situation where people who seek (or are likely to seek) promotion at KCL think they need to visibly not dissent from, or even demonstrate adherence to and actively promote, an agenda aspects of which they do not necessarily agree with,

are unlawful under obligations to protect free speech and to avoid discrimination against or harassment of people with protected viewpoints under the Equality Act, which questioning aspects of Stonewall etc ideology now famously is following the Forstater case.

Our letter is worth a read, and sharing with friends, as it addresses an alarming aspect of contemporary university mores, and the principles it expounds will be widely applicable. Open here 

BFSP is developing a detailed statement of this complex area of law and its implications, which we will share in due course.

Liability of employers for harassment by their staff of people with protected beliefs under the Equality Act:  After the Fahmy case

(04.12.23) The recent Fahmy case, about liability of employers for harassment by their staff of a colleague who held protected beliefs under the Equality Act, is very significant: not because it creates new law but because of the important spotlight it shines on often-overlooked but crucial aspects of the law and its implications. It is further evidence of how strong the protections under the Equality Act are for a range of protected viewpoints. See the statement about the implications of this case produced by our associated project, Best Free Speech Practice (“BFSP”).

The key implications are:

  • Section 109 of the Equality Act provides that anything done by an employee in the course of their employment must be treated as also being done by their employer. An employer has a defence (the “Section 109(4) Defence”) if it can show that it took all reasonable steps to prevent the employee from doing the alleged act, or anything of that description.
  • The convener of a teams meeting on a sensitive topic was criticised by the Employment Tribunal for expressing personal views in solidarity with one side of the debate, although it concluded that his actions did not themselves cross the threshold for constituting harassment. The Tribunal stated that his taking sides provided “the basis, or opened the door, for the subsequent petition and the comments” which constituted the harassment in the Fahmy case. This underlines the extreme importance of maintaining institutional neutrality, which we are confident is required by universities’ legal duty to secure free speech.
  • The  following were stated as (together) constituting harassment: describing gender-critical views as “bigotry”, a “cancer that needs to be removed”, “should not be tolerated” and “discriminatory, transphobic”, and likening them to racism and sexism; and calling the LBG Alliance (which promotes gender-critical viewpoints and which Ms Fahmy was defending) a “cultural parasite and a glorified hate group that has [….] supporters that also happen to be neo-nazis, homophobes and Islamophobes”. It is not clear how many of these statements it would have taken in order for the threshold to have been crossed.
  • To avoid liability for unlawful harassment by their employees of colleagues in respect of their viewpoints, employers must be able to show that they qualify for the Section 109(4) Defence, i.e. they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent their employees from committing that sort of harassment. This requires an employer to take the various steps which BFSP outlines in its statement.
  • It is also relevant for cases we have already been involved in. For instance we have written the following letters pointing out that previous failures we have written about have also included attributed harassment of this sort. To Cambridge and Caius College  about the Helen Joyce affair.

This area is going to have profound implications for free speech protection going forward. See for instance a letter to Edinburgh about a recent attempt to get a book launch cancelled.

We will be writing in due course to Bristol about harassment attributable to it in the Steven Greer/BRISOC scandal.

We have written to universities’ risk officers/committees pointing out the risks that universities take by not complying carefully with their legal obligations to protect free speech, which most of them currently fail to do.

Universities, Risk Officers and Free Speech Failures

(27.09.23) We have written to universities’ risk officers/committees pointing out the risks that universities take by not complying carefully with their legal obligations to protect free speech, which most of them currently fail to do.

Risk committees should be independent from normal management in order to be able to pick up on risks created by management themselves. They should therefore be, within the university context, relatively independent thinking and should care about getting legal compliance right.   

See our letter here.

AFFS Uncovers that leading universities spend over 200 times more on diversity than on free speech protection

(18.09.23)

  • FOI request campaign reveals over £19.5 million EDI spend across leading UK universities.
  • Only two of those that provided information said they employed anyone with specific freedom of speech responsibilities.
  • EDI spend c.214 times greater than on free speech protection. 

We’ve done it. After months of hard work, we finally have the results of our investigation into the spending and importance that leading UK universities place on Free Speech vs EDI.

EDI as a source of free speech problems

Institutional neutrality about arguable and contested issues was once the norm at UK universities. Recently, however, this neutrality has been abandoned as their Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) departments, which seem to be growing inexorably, push often controversial agendas involving gender, critical race theory and the need to decolonise curricula.

These agendas are nakedly ideological, have little basis in fact and science and do not reflect what the majority of people think. They are also often at odds with universities’ obligations to protect free speech. Nonetheless, these agendas, often involving participation in programmes promoted by external campaign groups like Stonewall and Advance HE, are sanctioned at the highest management levels. So-called training for both students and staff often requires agreement with the contested views embedded in the EDI agenda. Self-censorship is rife.

AFFS Freedom of Information Requests

In light of these concerns, AFFS sent a Freedom of Information Request  to over 50 leading universities asking how many people were employed and how much was spent in relation to EDI and protecting  freedom of speech, respectively. The responses have revealed the following massive disparity:

  • The 47 universities that provided relevant information employed 515 dedicated EDI staff. An average of 11 each.
  • The total EDI cost across the 42 universities that provided financial information was £19.5 million: £17.9 million on staff and £1.6 million on external resources.
  • These two between them employed not more than 5 people. One reported staff costs of £71,000, another said it spent just over £20,000 on external free speech resources.
  • Overall, therefore, around 214 times as much money appears to be being spent by our leading universities on EDI as on free speech protection.

Universities clearly had very different approaches to answering the FOI requests. AFFS therefore does not focus on the apparent relative performance of individual universities. This project was aimed at obtaining a good overview of the relative importance given by universities to EDI and free speech protection. In this, AFFS believe it has succeeded.

What universities should be doing to protect free speech better

The fact that these universities employ virtually no-one to ensure compliance with their free speech obligations suggests that most are not serious about free speech protection. Despite the stated expectations of the Office for Students, they appear to be doing little more than paying lip service to their statutory duties while continuing to fail to comply with them.

AFFS believes that the appointment of senior and properly empowered free speech officers is essential to ensuring free speech compliance. However, matters are unlikely to improve without a change of culture. A return to institutional neutrality and the reduction of bloated EDI departments would reverse the ideological capture of our universities and the suppression of dissenting viewpoints, and thus contribute very significantly to bringing that change about.

If you would like to read into this further, the key documents comprising this project are set out here, including a detailed statement about this project and a spreadsheet of the results. 

Here is a link to an article on our project in the Evening Standard: 

https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/freedom-speech-diversity-equality-universities-b1106724.html

and in The Herald:

https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/23789734.action-need-take-free-speech/

Concern About Durham’s Decolonisation Agenda

(15.08.23) There has been significant public concern about Durham’s “decolonisation” agenda. An academic has been quoted as being concerned about voicing dissent from aspects of the agenda and there are obvious free speech compliance perils with implementing and enforcing this agenda. We have written to the University to point out its risks and what it needs to do to ensure that this is lawful. See our letter here.

Our associated campaign BFSP issues detailed statements about the new requirements for protecting free speech

(31.07.23) Further to our earlier post regarding the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act finally becoming law, we are delighted to announce that detailed information on how these enhanced and often complex obligations might look in practice, is now available on our sister campaign’s website as a series of statements and requirements. Please see: https://bfsp.uk/universities-higher-education.

We recently shared these statements and requirements with all English VCs and other officers and invited them to work collaboratively with us to interpret these new requirements for their institutions.

We are sharing this so you can see the ambition and trajectory of our overall work. BFSP will be publishing more statements over time, including a very detailed statement of the relevant law and requirements in practice. These will we hope help set new standards, and will be used by AFFS in our campaigning.

We hope that the detail-minded among you – or academics facing possible issues – find this useful and interesting.

Failures at Cambridge about a cancelled event at St John’s

(12.07.23) A screening of a film, ‘Birthgap – Childless World’, that was due to take place at St John’s College in May was subject to a campaign of abuse and threatened severe disruption by activists, on the basis that they believed it to be (among other things) “misogynistic”, “anti-feminist”, “transphobic” and “bigoted”. It was eventually cancelled by the College.

The College appears to have failed in various ways to protect the event. We have liaised with the College about this, and we welcome the interaction we have had with it, which has been useful to clarify issues and enabled us to adjust our views on the events and their implications, broadly in the College’s favour. The letter we have written to the College is here. We urge that the College addresses the issues we have raised: we are happy applauding good governance action in recognising and setting a problem right. But we are disappointed not to have any assurances that it will be taking the issues we raise seriously, and acting on them appropriately.

The University did nothing about these breaches of its rules, and brushed the organiser off with inappropriate excuses for inaction. Amazingly, it said that this was a College matter so not its responsibility, which accorded with neither the facts nor its own rules. The appearance created is that the people responsible did not want to bother to intervene. It failed seriously and obviously to comply with its legal duties to protect free speech. Its failures are much more serious than the College’s. Unlike the College, the University has not engaged at all about the issues we have raised, and gives the distinct impression that it does not intend to do anything about these issues.  

We have written to the University in these terms about its failures, and will be following up. On the basis that it will continue to do nothing – the apparent lack of care for their obligations is profoundly depressing – we will be reporting it to the Office for Students for serious free speech failures.

Update: University of Bristol

(06.06.23) Further to our report earlier in the year about the serious free speech and governance failures of the University of Bristol regarding failures relating to the hounding of Professor Steven Greer, we have now reported them to the Office for Students. Despite having written to the Vice-Chancellor of Bristol in April, urging them to address these failings and informing them that we will report their failings to the OfS should we not see the appropriate action taken, Bristol have chosen not to respond in any meaningful way, we have therefore reported them. Please see our letter here. We will keep you updated as to the outcome.

Oxford University Student Union v Oxford Union

(02.06.23) You will probably have read about the Oxford Union/Students’ Union (OUSU) controversy, in which the OUSU announced that it was going to exclude the Oxford Union from the University’s Freshers’ Fair next year because it would be having Prof. Kathleen Stock as a speaker.

Following an uproar and pressure from various organisations (see our letter to OUSU here) – and intervention from Oxford University itself – the OUSU retracted. Oxford’s performance was, after a bit of a slow start, an example of how this should be handled, and embarrasses Cambridge and others by comparison.

Some good news for a change: there are signs of green shoots for us free speech lovers!

Update: Free Speech concerns at Sussex fall on deaf ears

(18.05.23) On 6 April, AFFS finally received a reply from Sussex Vice Chancellor, Professor Sasha Roseneil to its free speech concerns explained in its detailed letter of 10 February 2023 (see our original letter here). As can be seen here, Professor Roseneil’s short email completely failed to engage with the detail of the issues we had raised. When we raised this with Sussex’s external and independent Chair and Vice-Chair of Council, they seemed no more prepared to address the detailed issues raised than Professor Roseneil. See our letter to Dame Denise Holt and Ms Rosemary Martin of 6 April here and Ms Martin’s short email response of 28 April here.

This sort of complacency and refusal seriously to engage with free speech compliance issues when raised is worryingly typical. We’ll be taking the matter up with the Office for Students and the new universities free speech regulator as soon as possible.

Update: Edinburgh University’s security failures causes cancellation of screening of “Adult Human Female” for a second time

(18.05.23) Following the disruption by Trans activists of the first attempt by Edinburgh Academics to show “Adult Human Female” on 14 December 2022, we wrote to the Principal and Senior Lay Member, Janet Legrand KC, asking them to facilitate a rescreening. See our letter here. Despite an encouraging response from Ms Legrand KC 14 March 2023 here, the University failed to take the obvious precautions and measures which would have prevented Trans activists from again disrupting the rescreening organised for 26 April 2023. AFFS wrote to the University again, see here, expressing dismay at the continuing failures and asking the University to take all steps necessary to permit the screening to go ahead without further delay or interference. We received a response from Ms Legrand KC here, our reply to which can be viewed here.

Update: St Andrews continues to stonewall on disclosing training materials

(18.05.23) St Andrews has responded to our request for an internal review of its refusal to provide materials and questionnaires relating to its, potentially unlawful, mandatory EDI training for students and staff by doubling-down on its refusal and seeking to rely (for the first time) on an additional exemption. Read St Andrews review letter here. We are no more convinced by its latest refusal than by its original reasons and will be referring the matter for independent assessment by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Update: St Andrews. The Herald and The Sunday Times publish articles about zero expenditure on free speech in the context of high EDI costs

(26.04.23) In response to our Freedom of Information request to St Andrews re its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) costs, journalist Mark Smith has written articles for both The Sunday Times and the Glasgow newspaper The Herald, questioning the validity and ethical standpoint of spending £235k a year on EDI, but absolutely nothing on free speech. (We would add that this is also evidence of their failing to properly perform their obligations to secure free speech.) The articles are well researched and balanced and reference the prevalence of self-censorship on campus.

See here for The Herald article and here for The Sunday Times article.

Update: Cambridge. We have reported them to the Office for Students

(26.04.23) Despite repeated attempts to get the University of Cambridge to set matters right re their compliance and governance failures regarding the Helen Joyce affair, we are not aware of any action having been taken and have therefore reported our findings to the Office for Students. Please see our letter here.

Update: St Andrews. We have written to request an internal review

(17.04.23) Following consideration of St Andrews’ refusal to disclose the contents of its mandatory EDI training for students and staff in response to our Freedom of Information Request, we have now written requiring an internal review, saying that we will take the matter to the Scottish Information Commissioner unless the contents of these controversial (and potentially unlawful) courses are provided. See our latest letter here.

Update: Sussex have replied to our letter detailing free speech failures

(17.04.23) After two months, AFFS has received a perfunctory reply to its letter detailing free speech failures at Sussex University (including its extraordinary decision to put its Head of EDI in charge of free speech): see Sussex’s reply here. In light of this very unsatisfactory response, we have written to the independent Chair and Vice-Chair of its governing body bringing the contents of AFFS’ correspondence with the Vice-Chancellor to their attention. Read our further letter here. You’d think the University responsible for the Kathleen Stock debacle would have learned to take its free speech obligations more seriously. But you’d be wrong.

Professor Steven Greer and Bristol University’s failures to protect him: the worst case since Kathleen Stock at Sussex?

(12.04.23)

  • Professor Greer was subjected to a groundless complaint and a very aggressive social media campaign accusing him of Islamophobia and racism, with a demand that a module he taught on “Islam, China and the Far East” be cancelled.
  • The University completely exonerated Professor Greer and cleared him of any wrong-doing, but it nonetheless cancelled the module.
  • Many of those who organised or took part in the complaint and/or the social media campaign, were in breach of Bristol’s free speech statement, and committed misconduct under its rules.
  • Bristol has a legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for its students and staff. It took no visible active steps to protect his freedom of speech.

AFFS has written to the University of Bristol about its free speech and governance failures in its treatment of Professor Steven Greer, former Professor of Human Rights at the University’s Law School.

The failings were so extensive that Professor Greer has written a whole book about this episode: Falsely Accused of Islamophobia: My Struggle Against Academic Cancellation. It makes compelling reading. If you know anyone who thinks there is no free speech problem at our universities, give them a copy. (It can be bought directly from the publisher, Academica Press, or from Amazon.)

In November 2020, the University of Bristol Islamic Society (“BRISOC”) lodged a formal complaint against Professor Greer for Islamophobia and racism. Given that he was subsequently completely exonerated by a University inquiry, it appears that the complaint was based on false allegations.

In February 2021, BRISOC launched an intimidating and very damaging social media campaign against Professor Greer, which continued the claims of Islamophobia and racism and included a petition to have him sacked and to have the ‘Islam, China and the Far East’ module he taught cancelled.

The module was cancelled in September 2021, expressly in order to avoid further complaints and citing “student well-being”, even though most students, Muslims included, had been happy with it and Professor Greer had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Many of those who organised or took part in the complaint (given that it was found to be untrue) and/or the social media campaign, were in breach of Bristol’s free speech statement, and committed misconduct under its rules.

English universities must take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for its members, students and employees. This is a demanding requirement.

It is extraordinary that Bristol did not actively enforce its own free speech statement or rules. As well as general principles of good governance requiring this, it was legally obliged to do so.

How universities deal with controversies, especially social media storms, will be the sometimes very public face of how well they are securing free speech in practice. The great majority of Bristol’s failures stem from its apparent total failure to appreciate that it was required to do more than make nice noises about free speech, but to take active and firm steps to protect an academic like Professor Greer when under attack for his viewpoints. In this case, it had to stop extreme breaches of its own rules, many of them so bad as likely to be criminal.

Bristol’s failings were catastrophic for Professor Greer.  If the University had complied with its obligations, and enforced its own free speech statement and rules, the outcome for him could have been very different.

Professor Greer asked the University to stop the social media campaign because of the risks it posed to his physical safety. He was told by Bristol to refer his concerns to the University’s police officer. His requests to the University to stop BRISOC’s campaign were simply ignored.

Given the seriousness of Bristol’s free speech failures, it needs to take urgent steps to get its free speech compliance right. There is a lot to do. An essential first step will be to appoint an external expert to review this episode and make recommendations for changes to its requirements to ensure its proper compliance in the future.  We have listed some other key actions in our letter.

Our letter can be found here.

AFFS will be reporting these failures to the Office for Students.

We urge alumni and other donors to consider withholding funds from the University until it has demonstrated both resolve to improve its free speech protections, and real progress in doing so. (And telling the University that they have done this.)

Professor Greer says: “I am delighted that AFFS are helping me pursue the horrendous failures by Bristol to do their duty and to protect me from these unfounded attacks. I am very impressed by AFFS, and think they are going to make a real difference to the fight for free speech at our universities. I urge alumni who care about free speech to join them, and lend your shoulder to their campaign – they need you.”

What you can do:

  • Share this page with your Bristol friends.
  • Suggest they join AFFS – https://affs.uk/join: it is quick and free, the more members we have, the more pressure we can apply to our universities.
  • We urge Bristol alumni to write to the VC and other officers about this (please remember to express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts). Their emails are set out below.

Relevant emails (from public sources):

Professor Evelyn Welch Vice Chancellor & President: vc-team@bristol.ac.uk

Professor Judith Squires Deputy Vice Chancellor & Provost: pa-provost@bristol.ac.uk

Lucinda Parr Registrar & University Secretary: pa-registrarsoffice@bristol.ac.uk

Professor Agnes Nairn Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement:pa-pvcglobal@bristol.ac.uk

Andrew Monk Executive Director of Development & Alumni Relations: andrew.monk@bristol.ac.uk

Cath Bees Senior Philanthropy Manager: Cathryn.Bees@bristol.ac.uk

Jane Bridgwater General Counsel and Deputy University Secretary: Jane.Bridgwater@bristol.ac.uk

Clare Smith Associate Director of Legal Services:  Clare.Smith@bristol.ac.uk

Laura Trescothick-Martin Associate Director of Legal Services: Laura.Trescothick-Martin@bristol.ac.uk     

Update: St Andrews have replied to our Freedom of Information request

(21.03.23) We have received a reply to our Freedom of Information request to St Andrews which can be found here with associated Appendix A here. We note and highlight the following:

St Andrews employs 5 people to make up their core EDI team at an annual cost of £235,189.00 pa. The team consists of the following:

Head of EDI

Deputy Head of EDI

2 x Diversity & Equality Advisors

1 x EDI assistant

As yet, there is no specific free speech employee.  

Whilst St Andrews write that it has allowed its Stonewall Diversity Champions membership to lapse, they are keen to point out that it continues to engage with Stonewall via the Workplace Equality Index. It therefore seems that showing the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme the door had nothing to do with free speech concerns that have led others to leave.

The University also says that it is “focused on undertaking work on the renewal of the LGBT Charter over 2022/23-2023/24 which includes staff training within the cost and represented better value”. So, it seems to be a case out of the Stonewall frying pan into the LGBT Charter fire.

St Andrews also confirms that its compulsory online EDI training continues but refuses to disclose the contents.

We are considering our next steps and will keep you informed of what happens.

Foot-dragging over “Adult Human Female” continues at Edinburgh University

(07.03.23) Following the disruption by trans activists (some of whom were members of the University) of the lawful screening of “Adult Human Female” by Academics For Academic Freedom at Edinburgh University on 14 December 2022, we wrote to the Principal, Professor Sir Peter Mathieson. Read our letter here. Following a chaser, we received a short reply from the Principal on 18 January 2023 which can be seen here. Despite the warm words about freedom of expression, however, nothing has been done to identify or discipline University staff or students for their unlawful actions. What is more, it has become clear that, as also reported in the national press, Edinburgh is dragging its feet on rescheduling the screening and has sought to impose unreasonable restrictions. As a result we sent a further letter to Janet Legrand KC (the senior outside member of Edinburgh’s Court) asking her to intervene. Our letter can be seen here. We await any acknowledgment, let alone reply.

What you can do:

  • Share this news with your fellow Edinburgh graduates and suggest they join AFFS – https://affs.uk/join: it is quick and free, and the more members we have, the more pressure we can apply to our universities.
  • We urge Edinburgh alumni to write to the Principal and Janet Legrand KC (copying in the other officers identified below).
  • Please remember: express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts. Alumni care hugely about free speech, but we are not extremists.

Their emails (from public sources):

Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, Principal Principal@ed.ac.uk

Janet Legrand KC, Senior Lay Member of Court court@ed.ac.uk

Professor Kim Graham, Provost kim.graham@ed.ac.uk

Chris Cox, Vice Principal Philanthropy and Advancement and Executive Director of Development and Alumni chris.cox@ed.ac.uk

Update: Stonewall-related compliance issues at St Andrews

(22.02.23) AFFS have now received a reply from St Andrews to which we have in turn responded.

To view the reply from St Andrews please click here, to view AFFS’ reply to this response, please click here.

Free speech compliance issues at Sussex

(14.02.23) AFFS have been contacted by someone at Sussex University who is concerned both about a recent decision to put the Head of its EDI Unit in charge of freedom of speech and about specific aspects of its new Freedom of Speech Code.

It is symptomatic of the atmosphere at our universities that the person who raised the issues with us wishes to remain anonymous. AFFS is increasingly worried by the need for self-censorship on the part of those concerned about our universities’ failure to nurture and protect free speech culture on campuses.

AFFS is troubled by the matters raised with this, not least because of what happened to the former Sussex Professor, Kathleen Stock. Sussex is not the only institution where the management’s response to renewed pressure to comply with existing and future free speech obligations has been to seek to treat them as a subordinate aspect of their EDI campaigns.

We have written to Sussex’s new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sasha Roseneil, asking her to appoint someone independent of its EDI unit to safeguard free speech rights and to revise its Freedom of Speech Code so that it accurately reflects the law.      

See our letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex here.

We’ll let you know what reply we receive. In the meantime:

What you can do:

  • Share this news with your fellow Sussex graduates and suggest they join AFFS – https://affs.uk/join: it is quick and free, and the more members we have, the more pressure we can apply to our universities.
  • We urge Sussex alumni to write to the Vice-Chancellor (copying in the other officers identified below).
  • Please remember: express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts. Alumni care hugely about free speech, but we are not extremists.

Their emails (from public sources):

Professor Sasha Roseneil, Vice-Chancellor (S.Roseneil@sussex.ac.uk)

Professor David Ruebain, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion (D.Ruebain@sussex.ac.uk)

Geraldine Ismail, Interim Head of Legal Services (G.Ishmail@sussex.ac.uk)

Nicola Enston, Senior Legal Counsel (N.Enston@sussex.ac.uk)

Professor Kelly Coate, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students (K.Coate@sussex.ac.uk)

Stonewall-related compliance issues at St Andrews

(02.02.23) Recently, AFFS director and St Andrews alumnus, Andrew Neish KC, received an email from Professor Clare Peddie, Proctor of St Andrews University, seeking donations to support scholarships.

Andrew’s response raised free speech concerns, including St Andrews’ formal association with controversial lobby groups like Stonewall.   

The Proctor’s reply failed to engage with the issues concerned, instead making generalised statements about the university’s mission to address deep-seated social inequalities whilst paying lip service to its commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

St Andrews has been rated by Civitas as among the worst universities in respect of freedom of speech and appears to have taken no meaningful steps to ensure its compliance with its existing legal obligations to protect free speech and academic freedom of students and staff.   

See our letter to the Proctor of St Andrews here.

What you can do:

  • Share this news with your St Andrews friends and suggest they join AFFS – https://affs.uk/join: it is quick and free and the more members we have, the more pressure we can apply to our universities.
  • We urge St Andrews alumni to write to the Proctor (copying in the other officers identified below).
  • Please remember: express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts. Alumni care hugely about free speech, but we are not extremists.

Their emails (from public sources):

Professor Clare Peddie, Proctor (proctor@st-andrews.ac.uk)

Dame Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal (principal@st-andrews.ac.uk)

Mr Roy Drummond, Chief Legal Officer (chieflegal@st-andrews.ac.uk)

Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Vice Principal (People and Diversity) (vpdiversity@standrews.ac.uk)
Annual Giving Team (annualgiving@st-andrews.ac.uk)

Susan Donald, Development Officer (Operations) (donate@st-andrews.ac.uk

Best Free Speech Practice 

(27.01.23) We have been developing a sister campaign, Best Free Speech Practice (BFSP), which will work to identify what the law is actually going to require in practice once the current free speech bill becomes law. Its website has just been launched.

BFSP is working on a detailed statement of the law and what it actually requires, which will provide a basis for AFFS’ future campaigning, as it will identify the standards that universities will need to achieve, and actions they will have to take: they are currently way off the mark.

In the meantime, BFSP has issued the following statements:

Protected viewpoints under the Equality Act following the Forstater case

Minimum Requirements for Staff and Student behaviour

Compulsory EDI training

Free Speech Officers

QAA Decolonising the curriculum

Some good news: the OfS is looking a lot more proactive

(20.01.23) In the throes of what at times feels a long and unrewarding slog, it is wonderful to see some good news. The Office for Students issued an extraordinarily positive statement about free speech shortly before Christmas. It signals a much more proactive approach to pushing universities to improve free speech protection. We are very cautious about talk of the tide turning, but this is a very good sign.

Update: Cambridge, Caius College and the Helen Joyce Affair update

(22.12.22) Neither AFFS nor (so far as we know) the public have heard anything material from Cambridge about their apparent free speech contraventions. We have written – again – to Cambridge’s Council to keep the pressure up.

We will be staying on this case. Assuming that there is no change in their approaches, AFFS will report what has happened, and the failures of the management and Council of both institutions, to do anything about it, to the appropriate authorities.

(12.12.22) Neither AFFS nor (so far as we know) the public have heard anything material from Caius about their apparent free speech contraventions.

We have written again to Caius. The longer it does nothing, the worse it looks from a governance point of view, and we are pointing that out.

  

QAA embracing Critical Race Theory and “decolonisation”: free speech aspects 

(06.12.22) The QAA has controversially issued revised Benchmark Statements for university courses which incorporate a “decolonisation” agenda into subjects as unlikely as computer science.  We have published a statement about the free speech legal and compliance implications and risks for universities of implementing these statements. Great care is going to be needed when implementing the revised Benchmark Statements to ensure compliance with these obligations.  

University of Kent: Student and Staff Training Issues

(21.11.22) We spotted some troubling information about what appears to be compulsory student and staff training on EDI issues on Kent’s website. In common with other such so-called training we have seen (including as a condition of matriculation in some cases), the EDI modules state as fact various contested ideological positions (e.g. Critical Race Theory) and then require agreement or acquiescence from students in order to “pass”.

AFFS had already prepared a Briefing Note about the free speech implications of such training for new students which can be found here.

We have written to Professor Karen Cox, the Vice Chancellor at Kent, raising our concerns and enclosing a Freedom of Information Request designed to establish the full facts before we take any further action. See our email here.

What you can do:

  • Share our email and Briefing Note with any Kent alumni you know
  • Join AFFS if you have not already done so
  • If you were at Kent, consider setting-up a Kent University AFFS branch

University of York: Defamation of the Leader of the SDP by student activists

(17.11.22) Defamatory statements were made about Mr William Clouston, the Leader of the SDP, by York University’s LGBTQ+ Network following an invitation for him to speak at the Student Union by the University’s Free Speech Society. Although the meeting went ahead, this sort of behaviour is a worrying trend and certain activists think that their strong personal views about issues of public controversy entitle them to abuse visiting speakers.

We have written to York VC, Professor Charlie Jeffery, both to compliment York’s administrators in not bowing to pressure to cancel the event and to express concern about the behaviour of LBGTQ+ Network. We have also pointed out that, by taking sides on issues where lawful views can widely differ, York may be unwittingly encouraging this sort of behaviour.

AFFS had already prepared Briefing Notes on both student conduct and compulsory EDI training for students.

A copy was among the attachments to our letter to Professor Jeffery.

What you can do:

  • Share our email and Briefing Notes with any York alumni you know
  • Join AFFS if you have not already done so
  • If you were at York, write to Professor Jeffery (at vc@york.ac.uk) expressing your concern in moderate and factual terms
  • If you were at York, consider setting-up a York University AFFS branch

Letter to all Vice-Chancellors

(09.11.22) Following our launch, on 9 November 2022, we wrote to the Vice-Chancellors of English universities to introduce AFFS, explain its work and aims and invite constructive dialogue. See our letter here.

Update: Cambridge and Gonville & Caius free speech problems (November 2022)

Reports say that Caius refused to circulate information on the Helen Joyce talk, which appears to be in effect discriminatory against people who hold the protected characteristic of gender critical views. This is directly attributable to the College, so the question of whether the “private” email should be attributed to the College does not arise in this case. We wrote to the College’s Council about the very real issues regarding free speech protection, and they appear to be doing nothing, or at least saying nothing. This is turning into a governance issue. Are they relying on their being effectively unaccountable? We’ll stay on the case.

Nor have AFFS or the public heard anything material from Cambridge about its apparent free speech contraventions. It has dug itself into an unnecessary hole: by not promptly addressing the issues raised and recognising that that it needs to admit errors and improve its performance as regards free speech protection and communicating that recognition, it is making what could have been a moderate embarrassment into something significantly more damaging, including questions about its governance. We have written to Cambridge’s Council – see our letter here.

If any Cambridge alumni have the energy to write to the Vice-Chancellor, Chairman of the Council or independent members, it would help add some pressure. Their details are here: https://www.governance.cam.ac.uk/committees/council/Pages/members-listing.aspx

Update: Gonville & Caius and its free speech problems (November 2022)

The College has been strangely silent. They sent a bland the statement to (we assume) staff and students as well as alumni.

We are pleased that the content and tone of this further statement are more careful and conciliatory than the original email from the Master and Senior Tutor that sparked the current problems.

Nonetheless, the new statement does not even attempt to engage with the problematic issues created by the original email, and we regard this statement as well below the standards one would hope the College would set itself. The public (including alumni) are extremely concerned about the failures at our universities to protect free speech appropriately, as exemplified by recent events at Caius. They expect the concerns raised to be addressed directly, not avoided.

We think that the College has dug itself into an unnecessary hole by not addressing the issues raised and recognising that that it really needs to improve its performance as regards free speech protection. It should stop digging.

We have issued a detailed statement detailing our concerns (and see the College’s recent statement) here.

See our statement about the Equality Act and the Forstater case here.

Our first intervention: Gonville & Caius and the Sociology Department at Cambridge (October 2022)

The Master and Senior Tutor at Gonville & Caius, Cambridge, recently made ill-advised statements about the views of Dr Helen Joyce, the gender-critical author, and the meeting at the College at which she was due to speak. They said that they consider Dr Joyce’s views to be “hateful to members of our community”. 

Since the landmark Forstater case, Dr Joyce’s views count as ‘protected characteristics’ for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. 

We believe that, while these statements were presented as having been issued in their private capacities, the statements are likely to have caused the College to act unlawfully, contrary to its Public Sector Equality Duty. Further, by describing these protected views in the way they did, they (a) sent a clear message that holding these views is unacceptable within the College and likely to be subject to negative consequences, with the clear effect of being likely to suppress the expression of those views within the College, and (b) were complicit in the creation of a hostile environment for a visiting speaker with a protected characteristic.

We have written to remonstrate with them, and have urged them to show more care and judgement, and use more moderate language, in their handling of equalities and free speech issues going forward.

See our letter to the Master of Caius here.

Not to be outdone, the Head of Sociology, Prof Manali Desai, issued highly inappropriate statements about the event at Gonville and Caius at which Dr Helen Joyce was due to speak, in which she described information which had been circulated about it as “potentially harmful material” and apologised for circulating it and stated a resolve not to share similar material again.

The clear import of her email was that:

  • She regards certain viewpoints as unacceptable and not appropriate to put in front of her students and other departmental participants, with the clear implication that holding these views is unacceptable within the department. By describing these protected views in the way that she did, she was likely complicit (we accept probably inadvertently so) in the creation of what reports indicate was a very hostile and intimidating environment for a visiting speaker with a protected characteristic, i.e. Dr Joyce.
  • She intends not to share information on upcoming events of certain natures which offend participants within the department, whilst sharing information about other events. This clearly discriminates against people who have unpopular viewpoints or want to put on what would be unpopular events.


Her communication appears to be a doubly unlawful action on the part of the University, as a contravention of its Public Sector Equality Duty and as contrary to the University’s legal duty to secure free speech under the Education (No.2) Act 1986.

We have written to remonstrate with her, and urged her to:

  • issue a statement confirming that she is aware of her contraventions and setting out the measures she will take to set them right and apologising to those who have been disadvantaged by them; and
  • show more care and judgement in her handling of equalities and free speech issues going forward.

See our letter to the Head of Sociology here.

To say that there has been a storm is an understatement. It has been much reported by the press, with our letters quoted from. The Free Speech Union is also raising governance/compliance issues. We are aware of a lot of alumni having written in, some stating plans to cut their support.

What you can do:

  • Share this email with your Cambridge and Caius friends.
  • Join AFFS if you have not already done so – https://affs.uk/join
  • We urge Cambridge – and Gonville & Caius – alumni to write to their institutions to protest. Please remember: express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts. Alumni care hugely about free speech, but we are not extremists.

Their emails (from public sources):

Cambridge

Gonville & Caius