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Why I Want to Start a Free Speech Trade Union

NATO provided an institutional framework that enabled the signatories of the treaty to respond collectively, thereby pooling the risk.

· 18 min read
Why I Want to Start a Free Speech Trade Union
Stakende arbeiders Striking workers, source: Alamy

Last April, the historian Niall Ferguson called for a NATO of the pen. Inspired by the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty in which 12 Western democracies agreed that “an armed attack against one or more…shall be considered an attack against them all,” he suggested that “professional thinkers—academics, public intellectuals, writers of any stripe” should sign a “Non-conformist Academic Treaty” in which they promise to come to each other’s defense if one of them is “called out” on social media or “investigated” by their employer. Among the victims of these modern-day witch-hunts Ferguson cited Bret Weinstein, Bruce Gilley, Nigel Biggar, Roland Fryer, Samuel Abrams, Peter Boghossian, Jordan Peterson, and Roger Scruton, and said the lesson was clear: “we either hang together or we hang separately.”

This struck me as an excellent idea, but I could also see a practical difficulty. One of the reasons NATO succeeded in deterring Soviet expansion into Western Europe is because it didn’t require any individual country to make the first move in response to Soviet aggression. Rather, NATO provided an institutional framework that enabled the signatories of the treaty to respond collectively, thereby pooling the risk.

What would the equivalent mechanism be in a NATO of the pen? In the event of a dissenting scholar being attacked in an ‘open letter,’ the intellectuals who’d signed Ferguson’s treaty wouldn’t be able to speak with one voice. Rather, they’d each have to stick their heads above the parapets, thereby exposing themselves to similar attacks. Indeed, Ferguson’s list of heretics includes one such casualty. The transgression committed by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, was to write an article in the Times of London in 2017 defending Bruce Gilley, a Professor of Political Science at Portland State, who’d been mobbed by his colleagues for writing a polemical essay in Third World Quarterly setting out the case for colonialism. (The essay was withdrawn after the editor was threatened with violence.) That resulted in two ‘open letters’ condemning Biggar, both signed by dozens of academic historians. (That reaction will not surprise those familiar with the left-wing bias in the humanities. According to a study carried out by Econ Journal Watch in 2016 which looked at the voter registration of faculty members at 40 leading American universities, Democrats outnumber Republicans in history departments by a ratio of 33.5 to one.)

Even when scholars band together to defend intellectual freedom, they’re still at risk. More than 30 academics wrote a joint letter to the Sunday Times in June condemning the atmosphere of Maoist intolerance in Britain’s universities around transgender issues. Within days, petitions were being circulated by trans activists calling for some of the signatories to be fired and the following week a ‘counter letter’ appeared in the Sunday Times, this one signed by over 1,000 academics, each specifying their preferred gender pronoun.

Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee
How can students advocate for speech codes and still believe that freedom of speech is secure?

Is there a way of operationalizing Ferguson’s proposal so it doesn’t run afoul of the collective action problem? According to him, there is. His plan is to set up an umbrella organization that brings together different freedom-loving institutions from across the Anglosphere. It will be these institutions that collectively rally to the defense of dissenters when they come under attack, not the individuals associated with them. That sounds like a good solution and Ferguson is the right person to set up such an organization, given that he’s the author of The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, an historical account of just how effective international networks can be.

However, Ferguson’s article prompted me to come up with a slightly different idea, which is to set up a trade union. The apposite Cold War analogy here is not with NATO, but with Solidarnosc, the Polish trade union born in in the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980. Among the 21 demands drawn up by the Inter-Factory Strike Committee and its chairman Lech Walesa was freedom of speech—that is, a guarantee that workers wouldn’t lose their jobs for publicly criticizing the Communist regime. It officially registered its existence on 10th November 1980 after signing the Gdansk Agreement with the Polish government and was one of the first cracks to appear in the Soviet control system in Eastern Europe. Ten years later, Solidarity won the first semi-free election to be held in Poland since the Second World War, setting off a chain of event that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What I have in mind is a British Solidarnosc (although it won’t be called that, obviously), a membership organization for people who earn a living through writing or performing, primarily for the purpose of expressing ideas. (A bit like PEN before it was captured by the ‘woke’ Left.) So membership will be open to academics, intellectuals, columnists, pundits, novelists, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, songwriters, comedians, and so on—“writers of any stripe,” in Ferguson’s phrase. And not just those who’ve achieved some professional standing in those fields, but those with ambitions to do so—students as well as practitioners, even older schoolchildren. After all, it’s on university campuses and in high schools that so much contemporary censorship takes place.

If a member is targeted for defenestration by an outrage mob, it will be the union that comes to their defense—the organization, not the other members. I don’t mean it will provide the person in the dock with legal representation. To offer legal insurance of that kind would make the membership dues prohibitively high and trade unions that do offer that service usually rely on internal officers to provide support to members involved in legal disputes—not the type of support that would be much help in a complicated case. Rather, the union will provide them with access to an approved list of defamation and employment lawyers, expert guidance on how to crowdfund their legal costs, access to lists of potential donors, PR advice on how to generate favorable media coverage—most importantly—access to a network of sympathetic colleagues, many of whom will have been through a similar ordeal.

I know from my own experience that one of the hardest things about being mobbed is the feeling of isolation, of being a social pariah. I was able to fall back on the support of my family and close friends, but others have found the experience so traumatic they have attempted suicide—in some cases, successfully. This is a particular danger for people working as freelancers. That was brought home to me when I met Stephen Elliott, the writer and filmmaker falsely accused of rape on the Shitty Media Men list in 2017. He pointed out that many of the other men named by anonymous accusers in that McCarthyite document were full-time employees of reputable media companies and, as such, were able to clear their names after being put through a quasi-judicial process by their employers. (Although some lost their jobs.) As a freelancer, Stephen wasn’t entitled to any equivalent due process and he lost one gig after another, with people just assuming he was guilty. He lost potential Hollywood and advertising jobs, he was uninvited from conferences, his new book got almost no coverage, essays and fiction he’d written were unpublished, his literary agent dumped him, and close friends stopped returning his calls. He became a shut-in and a drug addict and decided to end his life. He put together a suicide kit and did a “trial run” that involved driving to the top of a hill near his house, smoking a lot of pot and fastening a plastic bag over his head. But thankfully he had a change of heart and, instead, decided to fight back. His defamation suit against the compiler of the Shitty Media Men list is currently wending its way through the New York courts.

If Stephen had been a member of the union I have in mind I hope his thoughts wouldn’t have turned to suicide. When thinking about starting a pro-free speech organization, I debated whether it should be a lobby group like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which defends individual rights at American colleges and universities, or something more like the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a membership group made up of approximately 3,000 academics, most of them conservatives, with affiliates in 46 U.S. states, as well as Canada and Guam. (Bruce Gilley set up an Oregon branch of the NAS after he was mobbed in 2016 for using the wrong gender pronoun of one of his students.) I lean towards the NAS model, mainly because it provides psychological support to its members, in addition to its other services. If you’re being attacked by tens of thousands of people on social media, including your colleagues, it’s reassuring to know you have an army standing by your side. The enemies of free speech hunt in packs; its defenders need to band together too.

The President of NAS, Peter Wood, confirmed that this is the most important role his organization plays when I spoke to him for this article. “Our function is to offer our members psychological support and connections with like-minded people,” he said. “Typically, someone in the middle of one of these dramas doesn’t know where to turn.”

Unlike FIRE, NAS doesn’t file lawsuits on behalf of its members but Wood and his staff of six, as well as the heads of the state chapters, often get involved in disputes before they end up in court, sometimes offering detailed advice on how to navigate complaints procedures and the like. “It’s time-consuming and it’s an avenue that can lead us into a perplexity of detail that can be maddening,” said Wood.

But oftentimes, it requires involvement at that level to sort things out. Some faculty members have poor instincts of what to do when they find themselves ostracized. The first step is listening very carefully and getting hold of the records the individual faculty member has of the situation. There’s usually an extensive documentary record. Often, there’s something so compromising in the documentary record that simply finding it is enough to bring the matter to a close. For instance, an administrator implying that they’re treating the person as they would any other member of the faculty and there’s a memo somewhere saying, in effect, ‘Here’s how we’re going to get Charlie.’

I envisage my union playing a similar role, but what if the person being targeted is self-employed like Stephen Elliott? Another important function of a free speech trade union will be to lobby for anyone accused of a speech crime—or subjected to a complaint about their behavior prompted by their expression of a dissenting viewpoint—to be granted due process, whether they’re a full-time employee or a freelance. Trickier in the latter case, obviously, but not impossible. If a large organization like the BBC or Google is poised to terminate the employment of a freelance contractor, following a social media storm about something they’re alleged to have said or thought, the union could apply pressure for them to be put through the same process that a member of staff would be. Alternatively, the matter could be referred to an independent arbitration service. If the union was able to extend the principle of due process to the self-employed it would be no small thing. Alongside the massive explosion in the use of social media over the past decade we’ve seen the emergence of ‘cancel’ culture—digital show trials in which people are accused of having said something ‘offensive’ or taboo and immediately found guilty, without being given an opportunity to defend themselves. Ironically, the leaders of the Twitchfork mobs who initiate these witch-hunts often profess to believe in justice. ‘Social Justice,’ perhaps, but not natural justice. A free speech trade union that stands up for those who find themselves in the digital dock is urgently needed.

One of the reasons social media mobbings are so effective at destroying a person’s reputation is that they create the impression that the views of the targeted individual are completely abhorrent to the vast majority of people. However, I’ve long suspected that the dominant ideology in colleges and universities—a commitment to ‘Social Justice,’ a desire to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum, a belief in ‘safe spaces,’ ‘micro-aggressions,’ and ‘trigger warnings,’ prioritizing the ‘safety’ of students over the pursuit of knowledge, and so on—isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as its adherents would have us believe. And that’s another benefit of a membership organization—it would be a good way of conveying just how much support there still is out there for dissenting points of view, particularly in the academy.

Let’s not forget that the Intersectional Left has a vested interest in creating the impression that its views are more widespread than they really are since that makes it harder for anyone to publicly express dissent—that’s how you shrink the Overton Window. If you’re a maverick academic who doesn’t subscribe to some of the shibboleths of this ideology—that your liberal arts college is ‘structurally racist,’ for instance—you’re more likely to keep quiet if you believe no decent person could possibly dispute such a thing and anyone who does is beyond the pale. Indeed, maintaining that illusion is one of the reasons outrage mobs go after anyone who challenges identitarian orthodoxy.

George Orwell identified this type of self-censorship—fear of social censure for expression the ‘wrong’ views—as a greater threat to free speech than state censorship in The Freedom of the Press:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question…Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

The blogger Scott Alexander provided a real-life example of such self-censorship in his blog:

Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said ‘Probably for the same reason I did.’

This is an example of what economists call “preference falsification”—disguising one’s real point of view for fear of the negative consequences of saying what you really think—and it surely plays a large part in the stifling of dissent on campus, not to mention the public square. Setting up an organization with thousands of members who are prepared to challenge the intellectual status quo is an effective counterweight to preference falsification.

Of course, there are already several such institutions in North America, including the Heterodox Academy. Another debate I’ve been having with myself is whether membership of the trade union I have in mind should be confined to residents of the United Kingdom or open to all-comers, regardless of where they live. Should it be British or international? My inclination is to fudge that issue. So the union will be based in London and the cases it takes up will be those of its British-based members—at least to begin with. But membership shouldn’t be limited to a particular geographical location. Why? Because in my experience the support of people from around the world is often crucial to winning these fights, particularly when it comes to attracting signatories to ‘counter-petitions’ and crowdfunding legal costs.

For instance, I’ve been informally advising the British scholar Noah Carl on how best to wage his campaign against St Edmund’s College, Cambridge—Noah was fired by St Edmund’s at the behest of a left-wing outrage mob—and I’ve found it really useful to talk to John Roskam, the executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), an Australian think tank, about Noah’s case. Last year, when the physicist Peter Ridd was fired by James Cook University for questioning whether the Great Barrier Reef was being destroyed by climate change, John helped him crowdfund a lawsuit against his former employer, as well as drum up support from around the world. In April, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia ruled Ridd’s sacking “unlawful” and he is now petitioning the university for reinstatement.

Incidentally, Roskam confirmed just how psychologically important it is for people being mobbed to know they’re not alone. “Peter Ridd was tremendously enthused when he got emails from dozens of academics in the U.S. and the U.K. in similar situations,” he told me. “It is a support network.”

Given that the assault on intellectual freedom is not confined to one country but is happening across the Western world (see this letter signed by a group of French intellectuals, for instance), it makes sense for all of us engaged in this battle to pool our knowledge. So I think the need for Niall Ferguson’s network is as urgent as the need for the union I have in mind. But as Ferguson said when we compared notes about our respective plans via email, the two are complementary, not in competition. “Both NATO and Solidarnosc contributed to winning the Cold War,” he said. “The key is to create organizations that stick up for free speech and for individuals when the odious mob attacks.”

Before I draw this to a close, I’d like to raise a couple of other issues I’ve been wrestling with—and which I’d appreciate feedback on. (You can contact me here.) Should the institution have a political identity or be non-partisan? And should there be a code of conduct—a statement of values—that all members have to sign up to?

Peter Wood, the President of the NAS, says his organization initially tried to position itself as politically neutral, but that turned out to be a mistake.

We tried to strike a stand that would be seen to be outside any established political identity. In our case, however, we took a stand early on, which we’ve maintained, of opposing the use of racial preferences in college admissions. That became one of the litmus tests for the Left-Right divide in the U.S. and without taking political positions on anything else we found ourselves being defined by outsiders as a conservative organization. For many years, I went around saying we were not political, but my denials had no effect and, in fact, had the opposite effect, which was to persuade conservatives we wouldn’t represent them. So I’ve concluded that if you want to define the NAS as conservative, go ahead…I don’t think the fight against reputational pigeon-holing accomplished anything, other than to confuse our natural supporters.

It’s certainly true that an organization of the kind I have in mind will inevitably be branded by some on the Left as conservative or “alt-Right” simply in virtue of standing up for free speech. Quillette has been branded “rightwing” in the Guardian and “reactionary” in the Huffington Post in spite of having no agreed editorial position on any issue apart from championing intellectual freedom. But I’m wary of labelling the trade union ‘conservative’ or ‘classical liberal’ for fear of putting people off who aren’t on the Right but whose intellectual freedom is under threat. Many of the scholars who find themselves being mobbed in universities are liberals or old-fashioned socialists who’ve swum against the incoming tide of post-modernism—Bret Weinstein, for instance. In the U.K., I’d like to see some gender-critical feminists become members. Numerous feminist academics in Britain have found themselves being mobbed by trans activists, as well as their ‘woke’ colleagues, for challenging trans orthodoxy, as the experience of the Sunday Times letter-writers demonstrates. Most of them are members of the largest academic union in the U.K., the University and College Union (UCU), but they’ve had little or no support from that quarter. Jo Grady, the new General Secretary, is a trans rights activist and used a service on Twitter called ‘TERF Blocker’ to block the accounts of gender-critical feminists. At the UCU General Congress earlier this year, a motion calling for the union to protect the academic freedom of its gender-critical members was defeated. In effect, an entire generation of feminists in British universities have found themselves disowned by their union. I’d like at least some of them to find a safe berth in the intellectual ark I want to set up, alongside ‘male, pale and stale’ conservatives like me. The union itself can model the viewpoint diversity and good-humored tolerance it’s seeking to promote.

Kathleen Stock, professor of philosophy at Sussex University and the organizer of the Sunday Times letter, was supportive when I ran my idea past her. “Currently, gender-critical academics face a hostile environment in U.K. universities for defending the primacy of sex-based rights and descriptions over those of ‘gender identity’,” she told me.

They face student complaints, defamation from colleagues, online harassment, campus protests, and in some cases, physical threats. Meanwhile, management are wary of losing Stonewall branding, and the General Secretary of the UCU has made it clear she thinks all gender-critical academics are bigots. This is really worrying, since universities are the engines of public policy, and these issues affect kids, teens, and vulnerable women in particular. We need to be able to discuss them freely, across a range of academic disciplines: law, medicine, psychology, ethics, sociology, social work, and so on. I think the idea of a trade union focusing on responsible free speech would be a welcome tool in this necessary fight.

But if the organization is to avoid any explicit political branding, does that rule out a declaration of principles? I don’t think it does and it makes sense to have some values that the members are expected to observe to prevent anyone joining likely to bring the organization into disrepute or undermine it from within. Getting this right is tricky since an institution committed to free speech shouldn’t exclude people—or kick them out—because they breach a particular speech code, which is precisely the kind of behavior the union will be created to oppose. Nevertheless, it should exclude people who do not regard free speech as a foundational value of all liberal institutions, one which takes “lexical priority” (in John Rawls’s phrase) over other values, including ‘Social Justice.’

I’m reluctant to set out the organization’s values here and if this proposal produces the kind of response I hope it will it’s something that can be debated by those interested in getting involved. But my provisional thought is that all members should agree to prioritize freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, and freedom of thought, and that, when engaging in discussions and disagreements, they should observe the norms of open, scientific inquiry, such as treating your opponents with civility, using logic and evidence to prosecute your case rather than personal attacks, crediting others for their work, and being honest and truthful. Acting in good faith is the key. As J.S. Mill writes in On Liberty:

The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner.

One way around the conundrum of not wanting to exclude anyone for being politically incorrect but, at the same time, not wanting to admit too many wingnuts, will be to keep the membership list confidential. After all, no one will be put off joining because, say, Milo Yiannopoulos is a member if they don’t know he’s a member.

The difficulty with anonymity, though, is that it will be seen as a way of protecting the reputations of the members and that won’t help with the ‘preference falsification’ problem. A similar argument has been made against the Journal of Controversial Ideas—that offering an invisibility cloak to dissenters who want to challenge ‘woke’ orthodoxy confirms the impression that doing so publicly is a form of career suicide. It underlines the power of the Witchfinder Generals rather than challenging it.

There’s also a more practical risk: what if some troll hacks the membership list and publishes it on Reddit or Medium? If people join the union expecting their involvement to be a closely-guarded secret, only to see their name plastered all over the Internet (alongside Milo’s), they will be justifiably angry, particularly if their career does in fact suffer as a result. They might even launch a crowdfunding campaign to sue the organization!

I think the solution is to offer anonymity to those members that want it, but to urge as many as possible to allow their names to appear on the organization’s website, including any well-known people. To prevent the membership list being hacked, there will be no computerized database. Just a single hard copy, locked in a safe. Only I will have the combination.

One last question: What should this organization be called? All suggestions welcome, but I quite like the J.S. Mill Society.

Anyway, if you’re interested in getting involved, whether as a member or a founder or a donor, please email me at If the response is positive, the next steps will be to register a company, set up a website and start crowdfunding.

Ten years ago almost to the day I wrote an article for the Observer saying I wanted to start a new type of school that was as close as possible to the grammar school I went to—traditional curriculum, competitive atmosphere, zero tolerance of disruptive behavior—but with a non-selective, comprehensive intake. The response was so overwhelmingly that I arranged a public meeting at my house in London and, out of that group, a steering committee emerged. Two years later we opened one of England’s first free schools and today there are 442 of them with another 250 in the pipeline.

To the barricades, Comrades. It’s time to start another revolution.

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