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The idea for a free speech trade union was born at a conference for canceled academics in Oxford last year. It was organized by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Philosophy at Oxford, who was targeted by an outrage mob in 2017 after writing an article for the Times of London entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial past.’ Because Nigel was bold enough to defend Bruce Gilley, a conservative political science professor at Portland State, who had made the case for colonialism in an academic journal called Third World Quarterly, he became the victim of a witch-hunt. Colleagues stopped collaborating with him, open letters circulated calling for his academic work to be de-funded and a Cambridge lecturer accused him of being a “white supremacist.” Needless to say, Professor Gilley had it much worse. The editors of Third World Quarterly received death threats from enraged members of the woke Left and withdrew the article, although it was republished by the National Association of Scholars.
Bruce Gilley was at Nigel’s conference, as was Bret Weinstein, who was chased off the Evergreen State College campus by baseball-bat wielding thugs, and Amy Wax, who was relieved of some of her teaching responsibilities at Penn Law School after she had the temerity to co-write an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer defending the bourgeois virtues. There were others, too.
Listening to their stories convinced me the time had come to take a stand. What was needed was a trade union-like organization that stood up for the speech rights of its members. The idea was simple: everyone who values intellectual freedom should organize so if the mob tries to pick one of us off, we can unite in his or her defense. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders need to band together too.
I wrote a piece for Quillette, the online Australian magazine where I’m an associate editor, running the idea up the flagpole and inviting people to contact me if they were interested in getting involved. Within 24 hours, I’d received close to 500 emails from people saying, “Great idea. How can I help?” From that pool, I assembled a group of collaborators and, six months later, the Free Speech Union (FSU) has been launched. You can see the website here.
At first, I thought full membership should be restricted to those that make a living through the expression of ideas – academics, intellectuals, columnists, pundits, novelists, playwrights, poets, comedians, etc. But when I thought about it some more, that didn’t seem right. After all, it’s not as if the enemies of free speech limit their attacks to people in those professions. Last year in the UK, a disabled grandfather who worked as a shelf-stacker at Asda, the British equivalent of Wal-Mart, was fired for posting a clip from a Billy Connolly concert on Facebook in which the outspoken Scottish comedian attacked religion. It was deemed “Islamophobic” by one of his woke colleagues and he was duly escorted from the building carrying the contents of his locker in a see-through plastic bag. I decided anyone can join the FSU if they think their speech rights are at risk. (Incidentally, we have a special discount rate for people who live outside the UK.)
I should point out the FSU isn’t just for male, pale and stale conservatives like me. Let’s not forget, liberals get canceled too. Bret Weinstein is a case in point. His sin was to refuse to absent himself from Evergreen’s campus on a ‘day of absence’ in which all white people were expected to stay at home for 24 hours. He describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and is still, to this day, a Bernie bro, but because he objected to people being asked to remove themselves from their workplace because of their skin color, he was deemed a “racist” and ended up parting company with Evergreen.
Old fashioned feminists are also being canceled. At the University of Oxford, Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History, has to be accompanied around campus by a security guard because she has challenged some of the orthodoxies of the Trans Taliban. Another gender-critical feminist who’s had a tough time recently is Kathleen Stock, Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University. I’m proud to say that Kathleen has joined the Advisory Council of the FSU, alongside a vast range of different people, right and left, all united in their commitment to free speech. You can see a list of the people involved here.
What will the FSU do if the mob comes after one of its members? I think there are a number of things we can do:
- If you find yourself being targeted by a digital outrage mob on social media for having exercised your legal right to free speech, we will mobilize an army of supporters.
- If a petition is launched calling for you to be fired, when you’ve done nothing other than exercise your legal right to free speech, we’ll organize a counter-petition.
- If you’re no-platformed by a university, we’ll encourage you to go to law and organize a crowdfunding campaign to pay your costs.
- If newspaper columnists and broadcasting pundits start attacking you for dissenting from orthodox views and opinions, we could get our allies in the media to come to your defense.
- If you’re punished by your employer because you’ve exercised your lawful right to free speech, we’ll do our best to provide you with legal assistance.
Anyway, please do check out the website. Our official launch date is February 26, but we’ve already thrown open our doors to people who want to join. It’s early days, but my hunch is we’re going to attract a lot of members. Free speech is the bedrock on which all our other freedoms rest, yet it is currently in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War. If we’re going to defend it, we need to organize.Published in