Don’t Divide Us would like to offer the following submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ call for evidence concerning Freedom of Expression. We focus particularly on the following questions from the guidance available online:
- Does hate speech law need to be updated or clarified as shifting social attitudes lead some to consider commonly held views hateful?
- How has the situation changed in universities in the two years since the Committee’s report on the issue?
- Does everyone have equal protection of their right to freedom of expression?
DDU submits that currently, freedom of expression is under threat primarily from laws intended to meet laudable commitments to equality, but which are flawed due to under-specification and low thresholds with which to distinguish between expression that is rude or offensive, and that which incites violence related to characteristics protected by the Equality Act.
This has resulted in blurring boundaries and gives license to unacceptably wide interpretations of what constitutes criminal hate speech. We contend that freedom of speech is increasingly adversely affected through informal means rather than through recourse to the law. That said, the incorporation of the concept of ‘unintentionality’ in hate speech crime laws encourages an overreach of application to incidents that are likely to be clumsy or rude even, but fall well short of incitement to violence. This indirectly encourages self-censorship as dissenting/questioning individuals are, de facto, placed against or outside institutional norms.
From numerous emails we have received at DDU, it is evident that HR departments in private and public sector workplaces are imposing mandatory training based on Critical Race Theory (CRT) which allows little room for freedom of conscience or belief. So, while formally freedom of speech is supported, when individuals are using this freedom to voice dissent from an opinion, or even merely to pose a question, they are often accused of being either racists, or their views are dismissed with assertions that they are too traditional and irrelevant. When some views are ruled out of court in this manner, and worse, the people holding them have been subjected to official discipline or censure, then we cannot say that all people enjoy the right of freedom of expression.
We offer the following indicative examples. Names can be supplied if needed provided they will be redacted on any public sites if published.
Mr. G—a member of staff at HMRC was notified of forthcoming compulsory training involving e-learning and workshops on ‘Race Equality. Below are a sample of handouts issued to staff. While Mr. G has pointed out that he does not feel his position is under threat, he writes the following in an email of 21st December:
“Since the summer I’ve expressed concerns to senior individuals several times about whether my Freedom of Thought, let alone my Freedom of Expression, will be respected if I don’t agree with some of the things the department says. I have yet to receive a straight answer to this question and on one occasion it was suggested to me that it was inappropriate to ask because I might offend people by doing so.”
He has not yet attended a workshop, which has to be undertaken by March, but below is a sample of handouts issued to staff which clearly show management’s commitment to key tenets of Critical Race Theory.
Mr. M was a member of staff at a financial company. When management told employees that there would be mandatory anti-racist training, and issued everyone with a recommended reading list comprised of authors who advocate forms of CRT, Mr. M’s colleague recommended authors with different views be included. When Mr. M supported his colleague when he was disciplined, Mr. M was in turn himself disciplined. He was in the process of seeking legal advice, but subsequently decided to leave the company and, dependent on his employers for a reference, decided against pursuing the legal route any further.
The following examples of curriculum materials have been sent to DDU by parents or teachers who have been disturbed by the direction a legitimate concern about racism has taken in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the BLM protests. The teachers and parents who have contacted DDU have felt particularly wary of raising concerns for fear that they are seen as racists.
a) The following was sent in by a primary school teacher in Scotland, it was part of a PowerPoint presentation for pupils:
The contentious but vague claim that inter-ethnic friendships can cause harm by virtue of an alleged correlation between skin colour and ‘power’ was presented as if it were established truthful knowledge rather than one of several opinions. If we accept education’s primary function is to develop children’s intellectual and imaginative faculties so they may become independent thinking future adult citizens, such materials are anti-educational.
b) Mr. K’s daughter attends a north London primary school. In September he found out that the school was intending to change its name due to its historic association with a relative of a slave owner. He was told that there would be a meeting for concerned parents, but later found out that he had not been informed of details because the school had decided to hold a smaller meeting for BAME parents only. In this instance Mr. K’s right to free speech was circumvented by the school privileging the voices of parents who were categorizable under an ethnic minority label.
The issue came and went, and Mr. K assumed that a CRT form of anti-racism was no longer being so actively pursued. Then recently a school newsletter included the following which was written by a teacher at the school:
All staff participated in training that focused on understanding unconscious bias, understanding coded language and micro aggressions and the importance of recognising
race and identity within our classrooms. We have explored racism and our own understanding, discussed privilege and mitigating unconscious bias.
As a staff we have all agreed:
We will be radically honest in our anti-racism journey
We will recognise our mistakes, biases and other preconceived notions; interrogate them, learn from them then move on.
We will ask for help.
We will be actively anti-racist in all aspects of our life, both inside and outside of school.
We will talk to the children about race and identity.
We will make our classroom and school an anti-racist space.
We will bring tangible action; use our talents and privilege to make a difference
This of course raises the question of what happens to those pupils, parents and teachers who find themselves unsettled by, or disagreeing with, the opinions listed by this particular teacher who clearly thinks her beliefs have the status of objective truth? The right to freedom of expression must therefore include the right to dissent, or to not ‘talk to the children about race and identity’ thus formulated.
c) The following slide is from anti-racist resources produced by the National Association for Teachers of Religious Education:
Pupils have to read each example and decide where it would go on ‘stairs of respect’ . The middle column suggests that the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide and South African Apartheid and occasional racists attacks in Britain are somehow causally linked. That this ahistorical approach is endorsed by an official educational gatekeeper is an especially worrying abdication of educational responsibility in favour of a commitment to a contested sociological and political view of society and people.
DDU’s own report in response to Universities UK report, ‘Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education, available here: https://dontdivideus.com/tackling-racial-harassment-in-higher-education-ddu-responds/ provides a robust critique of the methods used and the negative consequences which include creating ‘a hostile and degrading environment for staff and students alike’ in universities. Recently, at least 10 universities have issued statements of intent to change curricula and practice which show they are uncritically accepting the flawed claims of Universities UK (for details see https://dontdivideus.com/universities-should-exercise-healthy-scepticism-towards-the-universities-uk-report).
DDU holds the view that any public policy requires the widest range of scrutiny and debate in order to win the largest consensus possible, and thus meet important requirements of a democratic society. The examples above suggest that important changes are being made on the basis of opposite principles: asserting minority interests and delegitimizing majority opinions. This is fundamentally anti-democratic because in practice not everyone does have ‘equal protection in their right to free expression’.
Ideally, we would like to see hate speech laws scrapped. However, as a compromise suggestion, we strongly urge that hate speech law be clarified in the following way:
1. There should be a high threshold for any act to be judged as incitement to harassment/violence, requiring an element of intention.
By UK Parliament – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENIW7i48xHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62231401