‘Sticks and stones’ and Students Against Tyranny

Last Saturday members of the group Students Against Tyranny held a protest in Brunswick Park. It was met and outnumbered by a spirited counter-protest by the several other groups. MM reports.

“These are the real fascists!” cries ex-charity worker Nick Buckley MBE, pointing out from his platform at the anti-fascist counter-protesters on the other side of a heavy police cordon.

Buckley makes an unfortunate gesture as he says this.

“I know I’m not a fascist, and I know most of you [Students Against Tyranny] aren’t fascists. Know how I know? Because we’re not socialists. To be a fascist – you have to be socialist to begin with.”

Just off stage stands James Harvey, the 19-year-old founder of the group Students Against Tyranny (SAT), and the organisers of the protest. He proudly sports an SAT T-shirt that reads: “I am anti-antifa”.

Passers-by are visibly perplexed and certainly, to an outsider looking in, the scene is tense and confusing. 

Beneath the surface of the protest lies a deep political division between two sides who each see themselves as defending people’s rights, but with wildly different conclusions. So what is going on?

The day

The Brunswick Park protest was presented as defending the rights to ‘free speech’, with the aim of stopping “discrimination against non-woke students”. 

Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 sets out: “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. The law also states that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.

A spirited counter-protest by the Manchester Anti-Fascist Collective, Manchester Leftist Action coalition and various workers’ unions outnumbered the SAT supporters.

The counter-protesters walked down Upper Brooke Street and arrived at the Schuster Building in the park. It was here where they greeted the first three members of SAT to arrive, including the group’s founder, James Harvey, and a guest speaker, Tom Shaw.

They followed the trio around the block at a brisk pace. The route is marked in red on the map below.

“Come on! Break into a run for us!” one of the counter-protesters teased the trio as they paced around the university buildings.

Seemingly very aware of the police presence, and as I found out from later conversations, informed by some unpleasant past experiences of ‘kettling’ (a police tactic used to contain protests) – the counter-protesters eased the pressure and slowed the pace.

The counter-protest then regrouped in the park, blasting techno and shouting various anti-fascist chants, directly opposite the now assembling SAT protest.

James Harvey’s cause of the day, and his reason for being in Manchester, was the experience of a University of Manchester postgraduate student, ‘John Christian’ (pseudonym). 

In his speech Harvey characterised John’s story as one of a student who was expelled for “wrongthink” – having opinions contrary to what the SAT describes as a “Marxist-based left-leaning education system”. 

It’s a story that resonated with him as a student facing disciplinary proceedings at his own Swansea University. Now, Harvey was in Manchester to seek ‘justice for John’.

The University of Manchester has said the student referred to as ‘John Christian’ left “following a formal process established to consider serious concerns relating to their conduct – this followed four previous formal processes, and a number of warnings”.

According to the Manchester Mill, Christian complained to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, an independent university ombudsman, who upheld the university’s decision to exclude him.

The protest featured a mixed bag of opinions: everything from refugees, immigration and LGBT+ people to anti-vaccination and conspiracy theories.

(Above: A supporter of SAT holds up copies of The Light, a Germany based publication that promotes conspiracies and has links to far-right groups such as the Reichsburg movement. The paper has recently been the subject of a BBC Radio 4 series called ‘Marianna in Conspiracyland’)

Once the protest wound down, I spoke to one of SAT’s guest speakers, Tom Shaw, a dentistry student at Newcastle University.

He said: “The event here was specifically about universities, but I used my experience to speak a bit more about where free speech fits in society. As I said in my speech – it’s a messy and imperfect tool, but it’s still the best tool we’ve got and it’s the only tool that can help the most oppressed minorities in society when they’ve got nothing else going for them.

He outlined his agreement with the often questioned colloquial saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

I asked Shaw how he felt about the University of Manchester’s treatment of rent-striking students and their freedom of expression – arguably one of the most prevalent free-speech issues facing students here at the moment.

Eleven students at the university are facing a potential list of punishments, including everything from fines to total exclusion, for their occupation of university buildings earlier this year.

Shaw said: “I’m not really in a place to comment on Manchester just because, really, I know so little about it. It’s not an issue that I’ve been looking at. I’m not clued up enough on that specific issue to be able to make a comment.”


Harvey describes himself as a “civic nationalist” and a “right-wing, conservative, liberal student.”

“Anyone who knows me knows I’m the furthest thing from ‘far-right’,” he assures me.

In another video posted to SAT’s instagram, Harvey and a few other supporters enter a shop and identify a product they take issue with: a tin of playdough with some naff drag-queen marketing on it.

Harvey and his supporters can be heard identifying the “suitable for ages 3+” label as the product being marketed towards young children, which they describe as “disgusting” and “absolute filth”.

The label is a choking-hazard warning.

They confront the manager who listens to their concerns. She can be heard offering to remove the product from the shelves.

What risk of harm do drag queens and pride parades pose to children?

“They want to dress children up as women and tell them they’re women. It’s the sexualisation of kids. It’s teaching them that it’s normal. You’ve seen these pride parades – it’s the public display of fetishism.”

He denied any possible links between calling a pride parade “degeneracy”, as he has done on Twitter, and the increase of violence experienced by trans people.

He insisted that his use of such language was to describe the “public display” of sexuality “in front of children”.

I asked Harvey how he thought his freedom of speech was respected in this scenario in the shop.

“Oh, it was fully respected.”

There has to be a line, right? Right?

When I asked Tom Shaw where he draws the line on views that he won’t share a platform with, he said “anyone that advocates for violence or harm to other people”.

This is also something James Harvey and Nick Buckley both state.

Harvey has gone to various lengths on social media to discourage ‘ethno-nationalists’ from arriving in support of SAT’s protests.

The following tweet from Manchester’s Anti-Fascist Collective allegedly shows a screen shot from a Students Against Tyranny message group:

Harvey is also outspoken in advocating for the removal of the legal classification of a “hate-crime” or “hate-speech” from UK law because he believes it infringes on people’s freedom of expression.

“I don’t think it should exist.”

Hate-speech is classified under various legislative bills in the UK. Among them is Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986, which outlaws the “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”.

Harvey keenly told me that SAT would not support ‘ethno-nationalists’, saying: “That’s not our values.”

He informed me how they had previously booked one such speaker for a previous protest, Katie Fanning, before cancelling her appearance after discovering her political affiliations.

“I know we campaign for free-speech, and then cancel a speaker – which looks a bit hypocritical. She still has a right to free-speech, we just don’t want her values being representative of our whole organisation.

“But that’s also about protecting our brand.”

Harvey continued: “The thing is about free speech – I don’t care what anyone says. If any of Antifa got kicked out for their free speech, I’d stand with them 100%. If there was an ‘eth-nat’ student who got kicked out of university – I’d stand with them 100% – because the issue is about ‘free speech’.”

“Either everything is ok to say – or nothing is.”


Though SAT deny they have any affiliation with ethno-nationalists or other out-right racists and homophobes, the arguments they use their ‘free speech’ to make have everything to do with them. At least, that’s the view of the counter-protesters.

I sat down with ‘Alfie’, an unmasked member of the Manchester Anti-Fascist Collective. On the counter-protesters’ use of face coverings, he said: “It’s to just to protect our identities. I should probably be a bit more careful and wear one … some of our members have been ‘Doxxed’.”

(Being ‘Doxxed’ refers to the finding and leaking of one’s personal details such as name, address and contact information online, with a view to intimidating those subjected to it.)

I asked him why he was here today.

“I don’t want them to feel like their views are acceptable.”

Sarah Ensor is the a Branch Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, who joined the counter-protesters on the day. She said:

“I brought our regional banner today to show solidarity. We feel very strongly about racism and anybody who tries to whip up racist hate, and we understand that Students Against Tyranny are trying to do exactly that.

“They are posing as ‘free speech activists’ but actually they want to create division, transphobia, racism. As a union and as activists, we won’t stand for it.

“Just because you call it “freedom” doesn’t make it freedom. These people want the freedom to be transphobic, to be discriminatory and do whatever they like. It’s not ok and we’re not fooled by it. They are trying to package themselves as not being fascist – we don’t accept that.

“We know what happens when hatred is used to divide the working class – we work for the government and the government is doing this every day.”

Sarah Ensor, PCS Union Branch Secretary, pictured left holding a sign that reads: “Don’t let the far right divide us.”


The last of SAT’s main speakers was Nick Buckley, who used the opportunity to announce his plans to run for Mayor of Greater Manchester.

In defence of ‘free-speech’ Buckley announced his policy suggestion: 

“If I am elected as Mayor of Greater Manchester, I will commission the Free Speech Union to make a ‘free-speech charter’ – which will outline what people can and cannot say.”

Documents and email correspondence obtained by Byline Times in 2021 confirmed that the Free Speech Union is part of an opaque network sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation.

That’s the same Free Speech Union (FSU) that Department for Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, cited in his plans to install a ‘free speech champion’ at the Office for Students (OfS) back in 2021.

In a follow-up interview with Buckley, he agreed with Harvey’s view that we should remove hate-speech laws from UK legislation.

“There’s no such thing as hate-speech – there is hateful speech. And who defines what hate-speech is?”

Buckley acknowledged that repealing laws is not a power afforded to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and that his ‘Free Speech Charter’ would therefore be compiled by the FSU “based-off the existing UK laws” by drawing out “sentences from our laws that are easier to understand”.

“The Free Speech Charter will be a tool for people in Greater Manchester to use. They’ll be able to say: ‘The Mayor of Manchester says I can say these things’.”

When I pressed Buckley on the links between the Free Speech Union and the Charles Koch Foundation, he said:

“I don’t know anything about that [the funding]. I’ll have to take your word for it.”

During his speech Buckley referred to the counter-protesters as “envious of people like Mahatma Gandhi.”

“You’re envious of Martin Luther King; you wish you were born decades ago”, he continued.

It was quite ironic to see Tom Shaw’s own business card, featuring a quote from Gandhi:


Shaw struck me as the more moderate of the group, if perhaps idealistic to a fault.

During our discussion he said: “Free speech doesn’t come without responsibility. If you’re going to say something that will wind someone up or aggravate them – then you should expect a proportional response.” 

And herein lies the massive contradiction at the heart of what the so-called ‘free speech’ advocates of SAT argue. 

While they deny any intent to incite harm or physical violence to upon people, they refuse to acknowledge the causative relationship between some of the things they say and the harm that comes as a result – the sticks and stones that may be thrown as a result.

There seems to be a cognitive dissonance between the claims of taking “responsibility” for one’s words and then denying culpability in contributing to a hostile atmosphere.

Whether dehumanising and demonising certain groups such as trans and other LGBT+, immigrants or refugees, actively spreading misinformation such as anti-vaccination and other conspiracy theories – these ‘talking-points’ are intrinsically linked to the harm faced by many, and not only entrench it but contribute to it.

James Harvey keenly wrote to me just after our interview, clarifying that SAT also does not accept any “pro-Hitler” beliefs. 

So why the need to clarify this?

The reason is that these far-right groups, like ethnic-nationalists, want to turn up at SAT protests. And that is because they agree with the most prejudiced arguments that SAT use their rights to freedom of speech to advance.

To frame their argument as defending ‘free speech’ is a total misnomer. Free speech was alive and kicking at the protest. 

Instead, what lies behind this thin veil of defending ‘free speech’ is the same ignorance, prejudice and divisive rhetoric as that of the groups SAT wish to distance themselves from.

Challenge the actual arguments presented by SAT, and rather than defend their arguments, they divert – calling that challenge an attack on their right to freedom of speech.

It seems what SAT actually desires is freedom from the consequences of what they say: freedom from being challenged.

Related Articles