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‘Free speech’ Czar Role linked to Toby Young’s Free Speech Union and US Right-Wing Funding Network

Nafeez Ahmed’s investigation reveals that the Government’s new proposal is inspired by attempts to suppress free speech about racism

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Photo: PA Images

‘Free speech’ Czar role linked to Toby Young’s Free Speech Union & US Right-Wing Funding Network

Nafeez Ahmed’s investigation reveals that the Government’s new proposal is inspired by attempts to suppress free speech about racism

The Education Secretary’s proposal to regulate free speech at universities by appointing a national ‘free speech champion’ at the Office for Students (OfS) came from an academic defender of white identity politics who has argued that ethnic diversity in itself increases “white threat perceptions”.

Professor Eric Kaufmann, of Birkbeck College, is an advisor to the Free Speech Union run by Toby Young – the disgraced former OfS appointee who resigned from the role after critics highlighted his history of bigoted tweets.

Kaufmann first proposed the idea of a “national academic freedom champion” at the OfS to investigate alleged breaches of free speech rights in a co-authored report published by the Policy Exchange think tank in November 2019. Kaufmann joined the advisory board of the Free Speech Union when it launched in February 2020, when Young publicly endorsed Kaufmann’s proposal.

Young’s influence on the Government’s latest proposals raises questions, given his own role in defending scientific racism and biological theories of racial and gender inequalities.

Byline Times has previously exposed his defence of pseudoscience funded by the Pioneer Fund – a neo-Nazi eugenics foundation established in 1937. Among other things, the Fund’s affiliated authors – several of whom Young has openly supported – claim that black people have lower IQs than white people. 

Toby Young is also the man behind a free speech students network with the same name as the new OfS role – Free Speech Champions – launched in February. Although it claims to be “led by young people”, Byline Times can reveal that the project is, in reality, a Toby Young front trying to suppress free speech on equalities among university students.

Documents and email communications obtained by Byline Times, as well as interviews with students, confirm that Free Speech Champions’ network is actually controlled by its funders – the Free Speech Union and the Battle of Ideas, which is part of a network sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation. 

Under the guise of promoting ‘free speech’, Toby Young’s Free Speech Champions promoted alt-right figures such as Jordan Peterson, defended the alleged speech rights of Nazis in universities, fed students an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and discouraged students from using words such as ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’.

That the Government’s new role was inspired by an academic advising Young suggests that, far from defending ‘free speech’, Gavin Williamson is attempting to shut it down to defend ‘alt-right’ speech.

The Department for Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Promoting Free Speech for Nazis

In January, the Guardian exposed the role of the Free Speech Union in the Free Speech Champions project, interviewing a range of students who had been involved. The students eventually resigned over concerns they were “censured if they disagreed with the group’s right-of-centre orthodoxy” and described Free Speech Champions as an ‘astroturfed’ front for Young’s Free Speech Union.

However, the Guardian story only scratched the surface of what the Free Speech Champions project represents. 

The project was not conceived by any of the students described as ‘founding champions’. Instead, Inaya Folarin Iman – who sits on the board of directors of the Free Speech Union – sent unsolicited emails to students at different universities early in 2020 asking them if they wanted to join the project. Students who agreed to get involved were then enrolled in a series of meetings and workshops to receive training on free speech and to help develop the project. 

On 9 November, Iman emailed the participants links to online videos on free speech, including one titled ‘Would Today’s ACLU Defend the Speech Rights of Nazis’, published by Reason magazine. The video calls for Nazis to be able to freely express their views. 

Other videos recommended by Iman included one by the controversial psychologist Jordan Peterson and another by Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked magazine. Peterson – described by The Times as an “alt-right darling” – has been widely criticised for claiming that gender and class hierarchies are a function of the natural order. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Peterson has a track record of promoting revisionist falsehoods about Hitler, the Holocaust and Nazism.

Iman’s interest in defending the free speech rights of Nazis was in contrast to the opposition to students talking freely about the idea of ‘punching a Nazi’. In an email to participant Harry Walker, president of the Bristol University Free Speech Society, Iman appeared to oppose the freedom of speech to advocate punching Nazis, while simultaneously defending the right of Nazis to advocate genocide: “One thing I hope for this project is to see whether it’s possible to engage with the most reprehensible ideas in a way that is in the spirit of intellectual ambition, bravery and curiosity.” 

Shutting Down Speech about ‘Sexism’ and ‘Racism’

The Free Speech Union’s education and events director Dr Jan Macvarish was involved in steering discussions with the students from the beginning.

According to Harry Walker, Macvarish “inexplicably sat-in on all of the meetings” despite the students being told that the project would function independently of the Free Speech Union. 

WhatsApp logs reveal that, early on, she actively discouraged students from challenging racist and homophobic attitudes, describing doing so as an affront to free speech. Macvarish told the students: “I don’t think racism is irrational, it’s not a phobia. Neither is an objection to homosexuality.”

Macvarish described words such as “racism”, “sexism” and “transphobia” as “phobia” words which, if used, would undermine free speech. She also dismissed the idea of Islamophobia: “If you look at who gets accused of ‘Islamophobia’ it really isn’t people who are actually oppressing and abusing Muslims though is it?”

In several meetings, Walker said that Macvarish “was railing against the notion that ‘the personal is political’, suggesting this is the issue with the discourse around gender, race and so on. She also encouraged us not to use terms like sexism, racism, transphobia, arguing that doing so was making concessions to the anti-free speech camp”.

In other words, in the name of free speech, the Free Speech Union was trying to convince the students that certain words around racial, sexual and gender equality should be expunged from discourse – while words opposing racial, sexual and gender equality should be protected. 

Macvarish, a visiting research fellow at the University of Kent, did not respond to Byline Times‘ request for comment.

Cultural Marxism’ Conspiracy Theory

In WhatsApp conversations, the Free Speech Union’s Inaya Folarin Iman also went on to endorse fears of ‘cultural marxism’, which she incorrectly defined as “rooted in a critique of the Marxist critique of capitalism”, supposedly in which certain “post-modernist thinkers” moved on from Marxism to focus on identity politics such as “white = oppressor, non-white = oppressed (again, simple explanation)”. 

Her reference point was a book by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose called Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity. Apart from the book offering a systematically flawed analysis of ‘critical theory’, Lindsay is funded by the conservative Christian nationalist Michael O’Fallon, who co-created a statement branding ‘social justice’ a threat to the gospel. O’Fallon is founder of Sovereign Nations, the entire remit of which is based on an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about George Soros.

Iman’s attempt to promote fear of ‘cultural marxism’ to the students is of particular concern as the term actually designates a far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, thoroughly debunked by historians and quantitative analysis of academic research. 

Last year, the Board of Deputies criticised Conservative MP Suella Braverman for using this “anti-Semitic trope”. She refused to apologise and was instead made the Government’s Attorney General.

As Jason Wilson has observed in the Guardian, the theory is “blatantly anti-Semitic, drawing on the idea of Jews as a fifth column bringing down western civilisation from within, a racist trope that has a longer history than Marxism. Like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theory was fabricated to order, for a special purpose: the institution and perpetuation of culture war”.

The theory of ‘cultural marxism’ is credited largely to white nationalist Kevin Macdonald and far-right ideologue William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation. But it originated from the Nazis, who first used the term ‘cultural Bolshevism’. It claims that a cohort of German Jewish Marxist academics behind the Frankfurt School orchestrated an academic and cultural effort to undermine the US through an ‘identity politics’-driven cultural war on US values, mobilised through the Trojan Horse of minority rights. 

The theory of ‘cultural Marxism’ has since become a staple of the alt-right, used by the likes of Steve Bannon, Breitbart and even neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Behring Breivik who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. 

Inaya Folarin Iman did not respond to request for comment.

What’s in a Name?

Perhaps the most direct evidence that the Free Speech Champions project is not led by young people is the fact that, despite going through the motions of allowing the students to brainstorm together a name of their own choosing, Toby Young’s Free Speech Union forced the project to take on the title ‘Free Speech Champions’ despite it being universally rejected by all of the students.

In a letter to the group on behalf of members Harry Walker, Ben Sewell, Charlotte Nuernberg and Maya Thomas, sent in December 2020, they noted: “It seems that many of the major decisions regarding the project (its name, and belligerent approach to the culture wars to name a few) were made executively despite the group’s advice, not as a result of it; we don’t recall ‘Free Speech Champions’ being raised as a naming suggestion.”

The letter noted that the same name had been prematurely announced by Toby Young “nearly a month ago on Darren Grimes ‘Reasoned’ podcast”.

The students’ letter pointed out that, when participants voiced approaches different to that of the Free Speech Union, they were largely shut down: “Those criticising the predetermined FSU-esque direction of the project were dismissed as overly sensitive or caving to censorious factions.”

The Koch Connection and the Battle of Ideas

Young’s Free Speech Champions is plugged into an opaque network of lobby groups which are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation.

Apart from the Free Speech Union, its other chief organisational sponsor is the Battle of Ideas, a charity which runs the annual flagship festival of the same name on behalf of the Academy of Ideas (formerly the Institute of Ideas), chaired by former Brexit MEP Baroness Claire Fox – who also sits on the Free Speech Union’s advisory board. 

According to a joint investigation by the Guardian and DeSmogUK, Fox and the Battle of Ideas are part of the Koch-backed Spiked network of organisations which emerged from the ashes of the Trotsksyist left Living Marxism (LM) magazine – itself a splinter of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

In 2000, LM was shut down after it became bankrupt due to losing a libel trial in 2000, in which it claimed falsely that ITN had fabricated evidence of Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. The same figures involved in LM – including Fox, Brendan O’Neill and Frank Furedi – resurfaced through the Spiked network in the early 2000s.

It later emerged that, from 2016 to 2018, Spiked US Ltd – the network’s US fundraising vehicle – had received $300,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation to produce public debates in the US about free speech.

The Spiked network’s interest in promoting ‘free speech’ is clear from what it publishes and promotes – namely opposition to bans on child pornography; regulations on tobacco; gun control; limiting hate speech; bans on Nazi free speech; Black Lives Matter; anti-racism; the Me Too movement; and so on. It also regularly promotes climate science denial

Battle of Ideas trustee Frank Furedi contributes to the Koch-funded climate denial lobby group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Another Battle of Ideas trustee is Luke Gittos, author of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth. Gittos is a lawyer with “extensive experience in defending allegations of rape and sexual violence”, according to the book blurb, and is also a legal editor for Spiked

The Battle of Ideas did not respond to request for comment. 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Free Speech Champions is merely yet another astroturfed front group for the Koch-backed Spiked network. That its backer, Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, is linked to the Government’s new free speech czar proposal indicates that the biggest threat to free speech on campus is coming from an alt-right pincer movement with ties to the Government itself.

The Office for Students told Byline Times: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential elements of higher education teaching and research. Our regulatory requirements are designed to uphold the widest possible definition of free speech permitted within the law. However, we all must be clear where the law restricts speech – for example prohibiting unlawful harassment and incitements to racial or religious hatred.  

“Free speech is never an excuse for illegality or violence. It is essential that higher education is free of all unlawful discrimination, harassment and violence, and all students should feel confident that that is the case. It is vital that any student who suffers this behaviour is given the support they need, and that universities deal with complaints effectively and robustly.”

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