Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, launched to great fanfare at the end of last month, already has one prominent member who has come under attack.
Trevor Phillips, the former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and its successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been accused by the Labour Party of Islamophobia and is facing expulsion from the party of which he has been a supporter for thirty years. The FSU have started a petition to the Labour Party to “drop these trumped-up charges, apologise to Trevor Phillips and fully reinstate his membership”.
As well as Trevor Phillips, Harry Miller and other celebrated causes, the Union also invited along to its launch someone who has never been present in public life – and has faced years of stress solely for things she posted on her private Facebook account – Kristie Higgs. The 44 year old had been working for six years as a pastoral assistant in a secondary school when she was called in to a disciplinary hearing which lasted for six hours. Despite her unblemished record at the school, she was told by a group of about five senior staff that her private posts “were that of a pro-Nazi, far-right extremist”.
An anonymous ‘friend’ had showed her employer two of her recent Facebook posts, one of which encouraged friends to sign a petition challenging the Government’s plans to introduce mandatory sex education in Primary Schools (on the grounds that the lessons would heavily reflect the current sexual orthodoxy), and an article which raised concerns about pro-transgender books being used in her 10 year old’s Primary School.
In October 2018 she was told not to come back into work and in January 2019 she was formally sacked for gross misconduct. Traumatised by the experience, Higgs has only managed to return to employment recently, taking a job in a shop.
Andrea Williams, the chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre which is helping her, says there has been a large increase in the number of people asking the centre for advice after being sacked or discriminated against for bringing their faith into the workplace.
Toby Young, who has also taken an interest in Higgs’s case, invited her to become a member of his Free Speech Union. The message is clear: high profile individuals aren’t the only ones being cancelled for wrongthink, a huge number of ordinary people are getting caught out for failing to fish in a shrinking pool of approved ideas.
The alarming thing about Higgs’s story, which bears some resemblance to the Ashers bakery case, is that people have been penalised for arguing for the status quo – something now seen by some public bodies as dangerously reactionary. It is now not good enough to say we are at war with Eurasia, and we have always been at war with Eurasia – one must now anticipate the switch in allegiance.
Higgs will meet her former employer at a tribunal later this year and unless she wins it will be difficult for her to return to a profession she loves. But can the Free Speech Union lend a hand?
The challenges the FSU faces are obvious: what will they do if some palpably repellent racist or anti-Semite, for example, chooses to try and exploit them? The fundraising mountain needed for the legal cases anticipated only raises the baleful matter of the law and the judges. Neither as things stand can realistically be said to be well-disposed. And even rhetoric about, if not quite raising counter-mobs against woke online screeching, then at least bringing Free Speech guns to cancelling knife fights begs any number of questions. Are there really online legions of friends of Free Speech who can be motivated to stand up for it? If there are, and if they do at the FSU’s behest, will they necessarily do so in constructive ways which deliver the goods?
The need for the Free Speech Union is pressing, and anyone writing or speaking in Britain today should be conscious of that. Whether they can surmount the obstacles in front of them remains to be seen.
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