Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

Who Is the Government’s ‘Free Speech in Education’ Strategy Actually For?

The Department for Education’s decision to cite ADF International in a report on the issue raises concerning questions, says Sian Norris

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Photo: PA Images

Who Is the Government’s ‘Free Speech in Education’ Strategy Actually For?

The Department for Education’s decision to cite ADF International in a report on the issue raises concerning questions, says Sian Norris

The Government’s white paper on freedom of speech in education cites ADF International – a global religious right organisation that campaigns against women’s and LGBTIQ rights and has links to organisations actively campaigning against inclusive Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in the UK.

The white paper sets out the Government’s plans for freedom of speech in university settings, which it claims is threatened by prioritising “emotional safety” over “free speech” and causing a “rise of intolerance and ‘cancel culture’ on our campuses”. 

openDemocracy exposed how the white paper referenced research conducted by ADF International – designated as a “hate group” by the anti-extremism organisation Southern Poverty Law Centre for its views on LGBTIQ rights. It is a grim irony that the Government has turned to organisations focused on repressing the freedoms of women and minority groups to provide evidence for its claims that free speech is under threat. 

“The ADF is a group that the Southern Poverty Law Centre has categorised as a hate group, so it is extremely concerning that the Government saw fit to cite their work,” the anti-racist charity Hope Not Hate told Byline Times. It added that the Government has “a responsibility to uphold basic standards of investigation when building an evidence base on which to base policy and to ensure that extreme groups are not treated as legitimate voices in these debates”.

But who is ADF International? And does including its views on women and minority groups expose a contradiction at the heart of the Government’s plans to protect free speech in universities?


Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and support quality, investigative reporting.

Links to Anti-RSE Groups

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) was set up in the US in 1993 to “defend your religious freedom – before it’s too late”. It launched a London office to “better engage with crucial developments of law, policy, and media in one of the most influential cities in the world”. 

The organisation spent £448,436 in the UK in 2019 – an increase of £76,914 on the previous year.

Its cited aims in the UK are to “advance Christianity for the public benefit, both generally and in particular, by promoting Christian principles and ethics by supporting and enabling Christians to live and worship in accordance with Christian principles and ethics”.

It states that it does this by engaging in “public commentary and the production of resources, public-speaking and training, as well as targeted assistance for those who may be prevented from living and worshipping in accordance with Christian principles and ethics”. 

That “targeted assistance” most commonly comes in the form of legal support. For example, ADF International intervened in the notorious case of a Belfast baker who refused to make a cake featuring a pro-LGBTIQ rights slogan. It also provided legal advice in the case of Lillian Ladele, a registrar who refused to officiate same-sex marriages.

Both Ladele and Ashers Bakery were supported by the Christian Institute, a religious-right organisation that, among other issues, provides advice to families concerned about widening the National Curriculum to include LGBTIQ-inclusive education in schools. 

While the Christian Institute acknowledges that “some aspects of the law” on RSE “are helpful”, it also accuses the new curriculum of allowing “for the promotion of gay rights and radical gender ideology”.

A briefing document by the organisation claims that “sex education teaching and materials that ignore Biblical standards are damaging for young people and have long-term consequences for society as a whole” and that RSE risks sexualising children too young. 

One inclusive RSE resource was criticised as an example of “the lengths to which some campaign groups will go to foist their agenda on naive schools”.

Back in 2011, ADF International worked with another UK religious-right group opposed to LGBTIQ-inclusive RSE: Christian Concern They worked together to set up an initiative called The Wilberforce Academy.

ADF International has also supported the Christian Legal Centre – a branch of Christian Concern – including by providing funding for the case of Gary McFarlane, a counsellor who lost his job after “expressing concern” about sex therapy for LGBTIQ couples.

Christian Concern is one of the founders of Parent Power, a coalition of religious-right, anti-LGBTIQ rights and anti-abortion organisations Voice for Justice UK, Society for the Protection of Unborn Childre, and Christian Education Europe. 

Parent Power has called inclusive-RSE “a war against Christianity” and an “attempt to normalise alternative lifestyles”. It claims that “the current imposition of doctrinaire and partisan views to entrench LGBT ideology on young minds is wrong” and “totalitarian bigotry of the worst kind”.

The current legal counsel at Christian Concern’s Christian Legal Centre, Roger Kiska, was formerly employed by ADF International and is on the Committee of the Values Foundation – another organisation opposed to inclusive RSE. Discussing the subject in a keynote speech in 2019, Kiska said that equalities legislation is “not all-powerful” and can be “limited” to protect the “health and morals” of students.

The arguments made by the religious-right against LGBTIQ-inclusive education do, in themselves, undermine freedom of expression and education. It is concerning therefore that, in its bid to apparently defend freedom of speech in educational settings, the Government cites an organisation that has worked with groups determined to prevent children from accessing LGBTIQ-inclusive education. 

It also illustrates an inherent contradiction in its approach to free speech in education: whose speech is being protected and whose is being attacked when campaigners apparently concerned with freedoms are urging against an inclusive curriculum?

The Government claims to want to prevent ‘intolerance’ in education yet is consulting with an organisation with allies that wish to deny children and young people a chance to engage with a range of relationship narratives that look beyond one set of personal beliefs or agendas.

Such an attitude has echoes of the dark days of Section 28, whereby the Conservative Government banned the “promotion” of homosexuality and “fake family relationships” in schools – an egregious assault on free speech if ever there was one. 

Anti-Abortion on Campuses

One of the ways in which ADF International seeks to further its aims in the UK is by supporting anti-abortion societies at universities. 

According to the organisation’s 2019 accounts, the “targeted assistance” it has offered includes supporting “a number of student groups across the United Kingdom who have been subject to censure after student representative bodies had unlawfully curtailed their rights to free expression and freedom of religion”. 

This included supporting an anti-abortion society at the University of Glasgow, which was denied affiliation with the Students’ Representative Council. ADF International argued that the society’s exclusion was in breach of the 2010 Equality Act. 

ADF International also intervened following opposition to anti-abortion protests at Cardiff University co-organised by CBR UK- best known for targeting pro-choice Labour MP Stella Creasy with graphic images of abortion outside her constituency office. 

Earlier this year, ADF International’s Lois McLatchie wrote on the influential ConservativeHome site about the “threat” to “pro-life” students’ freedom of speech.

It is for the organisation’s activity on campuses that perhaps best explains why the Government chose to cite ADF International on student attitudes to free speech. However, by failing to note or account for the organisation’s anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ views, the Government risks ignoring that women and minority groups have rights too – including the right to safe reproductive healthcare and the right to live free from discrimination.

Christian Concern and Parent Power both have links to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who hosted the launch of Parent Power in Parliament. The Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh is the patron of the Values Foundation.

ADF International invited anti-abortion MP Fiona Bruce to speak at its youth leadership conference in Vienna in 2019. The organisation paid her expenses with a £927 donation. 

The Department for Education did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , , , , , ,