Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join and help turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons at the bottom of this email. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.
Online Speakeasy with Meghan Murphy – register for tickets here!
Our next members-only Online Speakeasy is ‘Defeating Twitter Bans and Defending Free Speech’, featuring Toby Young in conversation with Meghan Murphy. Join us on Zoom at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8th March for this online Speakeasy with Canadian journalist, writer and podcaster Meghan Murphy – the link to register for this members-only event is here.
Meghan is the founder and editor of Feminist Current, a feminist website and podcast, and host of YouTube channel The Same Drugs. She has spoken up about the issue of gender identity legislation and women’s rights, including in the Canadian senate and the Scottish Parliament, and has had to endure repeated threats of death, rape, violence and censorship (Telegraph). Meghan was permanently banned from Twitter in 2018 for saying that men are not women. Thankfully, the ban was lifted by Twitter’s new owner and CEO, Elon Musk, some four years later, in November 2022.
The focus of her work for many years was on cultural analysis from a feminist and socialist perspective, though in a recent interview with Spiked she admitted that one of the things she gained from being banned from Twitter was “connecting with people who had been advocating for free speech for a long time” and she has since switched her focus to the fight for free speech. “You would hope people would understand why censorship and controlling speech for political purposes are dangerous,” she says, “but so many people don’t seem to get it.”
Dis-/misinformation and the freedom to dissent – book your tickets here!
So-called dis- and misinformation have been singled out by many governments, institutions, charities and commercial businesses as threats to democracy that require widespread censorship – only last week, for instance, the Czech government announced it is considering sweeping new disinformation laws to block sites that “threaten national security” and prosecute those deemed to be “spreading misinformation” (Reclaim the Net).
But is this a genuine concern, or just an excuse to suppress dissenting points of view on issues like the Covid lockdowns, mRNA vaccines, the war in Ukraine and climate change? And even if the threat is real and the concern is genuine, how can we trust state agencies to accurately identify dis- and misinformation?
The FSU is bringing together a panel of experts to discuss these issues, including the Director of Big Brother Watch Silkie Carlo, writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness, and two people identified by a 77th Brigade whistle-blower as having been flagged for disseminating ‘misinformation’ about the Government’s pandemic response, the journalist Peter Hitchens and FSU General Secretary Toby Young.
Join us in-person or online to discuss what lessons we should learn about how to counter the mis/disinformation police and defend the freedom to dissent. In-person tickets are sold out, but you can join the waiting list to be notified if a place becomes available. Alternatively, join us on Zoom by registering here.
Roald Dahl’s books brought into line with ‘progressive’ sensibilities
Puffin Books has made hundreds of changes to the latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books (Bookseller, Spectator, Telegraph, Telegraph, Times). Working in partnership with Inclusive Minds – an organisation that employs so-called sensitivity readers to help organisations implement diversity, equality and inclusion policies – the publisher has, as it puts it, “brought [the texts] up to date” (Telegraph).
“Words matter,” begins the discreet notice, which sits at the bottom of the copyright page of Puffin’s latest editions of Roald Dahl’s books. “The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”
A sensitivity reader with ‘lived experience’ of George Orwell’s oeuvre might well advise Puffin to rephrase that notice: all words are equal, but some words are more equal than others. In Dahl’s case, for instance, Puffin and its subcontracted sensitivity readers took the view that far too many of his lexical choices were outdated, harmful, and therefore replaceable. Presumably, that’s why they felt intensely relaxed about granting themselves licence to edit this – eugh! – dead white male’s prose, chopping, tweaking, altering and even adding entirely new sections where necessary to bring his books into line with ‘progressive’ sensibilities.
Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender, and race has been cut and rewritten. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach are now the Cloud-People. The Oompa-Loompas in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory have also transitioned from “small men” into “small people”. Fantastic Mr Fox’s Small Foxes are now female. In Matilda, a mention of male, pale and stale Rudyard Kipling has been cut and Jane Austen added. And so on and so, didactically, forth.
It’s Roald Dahl, but only now with the underlying philosophical worldview of a prim and earnest twentysomething Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer in the NHS. And on occasion, it would seem, similar levels of literary talent. In Roald Dahl’s The Witches, for example, the following passage:
“Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.”
“Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
The best you can say about whoever wrote that passage is that they’d probably have done very well if they’d taken up some other line of employment.
Elsewhere in the book, Dahl’s story and plotline is recruited into the cause of increasing the number of women in STEM careers. The following passage:
Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman.
Even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business.
It’s the adjective ‘top’ that takes us to the heart of what’s really going on here. Unnecessary and disruptive from the point of view of prosody, it is nevertheless critical to Puffin’s proselytising mission. So there it stands, surrounded by the rubble of Dahl’s literary style like some grim, brutalist monument to Orwellian Newspeak.
In Fantastic Mr Fox a description of two tractors as “machines” that were “both black”, has also been cut. In Dahl’s new world, it seems, describing a tractor as “black” is racist.
Alexandra Strick, a co-founder of Inclusive Minds, said her organisation “aims to ensure authentic representation, by working closely with the book world and with those who have lived experience of any facet of diversity”. When it comes to the production of “authentic” revisions for something as vast as Dahl’s back catalogue, she explained, the company is able to call upon a team of “Inclusion Ambassadors” with a wide variety of “lived experience”. Lived experience of tractors?
Puffin has since defended its work with Inclusive Minds, insisting that it has a “significant responsibility” to protect young readers and that the changes are “minimal” (Telegraph).
But are the changes minimal?
In linguistics a distinction is often made between three different roles available for the production of speech: the principal, whose position the talk is meant to represent, the author, who does the scripting, and the animator, who says the words. It’s obvious even from the few examples cited above that Puffin is at times positioning itself as the invisible author behind Dahl’s prose. In the parlance of the mafia, he’s being repositioned as the front man for Puffin’s psychological protection racket. Some people might feel that that’s not a “minimal” change at all, but actually a substantial infringement of an author’s right to freedom of speech and expression.
Sir Salman Rushdie led the backlash against what he described as “absurd censorship” at the hands of Puffin’s “bowdlerising sensitivity police” (Express, Telegraph). Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also condemned the publisher’s actions. Asked about the changes, Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “It is important that works of literature, works of fiction, are preserved and not airbrushed.” (Times).
Meanwhile, Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of literature and human rights organisation PEN America, said she was “alarmed” at the changes, which “could represent a dangerous new weapon”. Ms Nossel added: “Literature is meant to be surprising and provocative. That’s part of its potency. By setting out to remove any reference that might cause offense you dilute the power of storytelling.”
The Queen Consort appears to agree, having taken what is being interpreted as a “subtle dig” at Puffin (Express, Guardian). Speaking at a Clarence House reception to mark the second anniversary of her online book club, she told assembled authors: “Please remain true to your calling, unimpeded by those who may wish to curb the freedom of your expression or impose limits on your imagination.” Looking up from her notes with a mischievous smile, she added: “Enough said.” (Mail, Telegraph). Her comments were greeted by laughter and cheers of “hear, hear”. Hear, hear.
Karen Sunderland’s fundraiser – show your support and help protect freedom of speech in the workplace
Karen Sunderland is suing her former employer after falling victim to ‘offence archaeology’. In 2018, when Karen was a Conservative candidate in the local elections, iNews dug up some tweets she’d posted in 2017 and managed to get her suspended by the party. The tweets reflected her sincere belief that aspects of Islamic doctrine are illiberal and unfair to women.
Four years later, when Karen was embarking on a new career, someone tipped off her employer about this episode and she was fired. Karen believes her comments were protected political speech and her dismissal was unfair and discriminatory. Her claim makes two important legal arguments.
First, her dismissal was either directly or indirectly because of her belief in conservatism, a belief that should be protected by the Equality Act 2010. Establishing that conservatism is a protected belief would bring balance to the law: there is case law protecting democratic socialism, but no equivalent protections for its right-wing counterpart. If she succeeds in winning this argument, the judgement would protect employees with conservative views which, while wholly lawful, are often thought to be offensive to HR officers.
Second, Karen argues that she was dismissed because of her belief in freedom of speech. In short, free-thinkers attract controversy and always have – and employers who put rigid speech codes in place are disproportionately affecting those who believe in free speech. A finding that freedom of speech is a protected belief would give legal protection to other employees who manifest that belief by speaking their minds and testing received wisdom.
Karen’s trial begins on 28th March. She is being represented by barrister Francis Hoar, acting on a direct access basis. Francis is one of England’s best barristers when it comes to freedom of speech cases and party-political matters: in 2021 he published In Protection of Freedom of Speech, with a Foreword by Lord Sumption.
You can donate to Karen’s fundraiser here.
Foreign Office funding group that seeks to demonetise conservative news publishers
The Government is contributing to a widespread international attack on free speech by funding a UK-based organisation that works to disrupt online advertising revenues for many right-of-centre publications (Daily Sceptic, Epoch Times, Reclaim the Net, Washington Examiner). Taxpayers’ money is being funnelled through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to an outfit called the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), which compiles a “dynamic exclusion list” – or ‘blocklist’ – of mostly conservative publications and then feeds that list to advertisers with the aim of defunding and shutting down lawful, right-of centre speech.
The rise of “disinformation trackers” like the GDI marks the opening of a new front in the battle for online free speech. Brands looking to expand their digital footprint by promoting products online through multiple websites and platforms are increasingly turning to such organisations for information on how to manage reputational risk, which, in turn, has granted them considerable power to infringe upon the free speech rights of conservative journalists.
Publications included on the GDI’s blacklist in the US include the American Spectator, Breitbart, Reason, American Conservative and the New York Post (i.e., the only mainstream newspaper in the US to publicise the Hunter Biden laptop story ahead of the 2020 US presidential election). The list’s aim is to discredit conservative news organisations, reduce their ad revenue and ultimately shut them down.
Apart from the support of the British taxpayer, the GDI has received funds from the US State Department via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), as well as George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, and a group of wealthy foundations including the left-wing Knight Foundation.
One of the reasons the GDI poses such a threat to free speech is that its definition of ‘disinformation’ is unusually capacious. It doesn’t just mean information that’s false and disseminated by people who know it’s false and have malevolent intentions. The GDI has broadened its definition to include what it calls “adversarial narratives… which create a risk of harm by undermining trust in science or targeting at-risk individuals or institutions”.
So, for instance, if a conservative publication like Breitbart decides to use the term ‘illegal alien’ in its crime reporting – rather than the technically correct term ‘undocumented immigrant’ – the GDI classifies that as disinformation. Does that make Breitbart’s reporting inaccurate? Of course not. As the GDI’s Executive Director, Danny Rogers, cheerfully concedes, “each individual story would likely fact check to be technically correct, in that the crime did happen and the alleged perpetrator was likely an undocumented immigrant”. The problem, he says, is that such phrases are integral to an “adversarial narrative” that poses a “risk of harm to vulnerable populations”.
However, a fightback is now underway in the US. This week, the GDI lost the NED’s financial support over its role in demonetising conservative news outlets. According to Damon Wilson, CEO of NED, his organisation had only recently been made aware that the GDI was funded by a different donor that focused on specific US media outlets. That mattered, he said, because “as set forth in our Articles of Incorporation and the NED Act, our mandate is to work around the world and not in the United States. We have strict policies and practices in place so that NED and the work we fund remains internationally focused, ensuring the endowment does not become involved in domestic politics.”
NED’s decision to defund GDI is a significant victory for free speech because NED is funded by the State Department. Financial documents show that NED has received over $300 million from the US Government since 2021. According to Breitbart, Republican Senator Elise Stefanik was instrumental in ensuring that GDI would no longer receive financial support from NED. Stefanik, an NED board member, has been concerned about the targeting of conservative voices and media, especially GDI seeking to demonetise them.
It’s good to see US politicians waking up to the threat to free speech posed by the nascent anti-disinformation industry. The FSU is now working with friends and supporters across both Houses of Parliament to persuade the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office to stop its funding of the GDI.
Parliamentary petition seeks to clarify that “sex means sex” in the Equality Act — sign now!
Human-rights campaign group Sex Matters is running an official petition asking the Government to make clear that the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act 2010 does indeed mean sex – male and female. The organisation, which campaigns for sex-based women’s rights, needs another 18,000 signatures to reach the 100,000 mark that means it will be put forward for a parliamentary debate.
When the Gender Recognition Act came into force in 2004, lawmakers recognised that it was an extraordinary piece of legislation, and that the implications of section 9, which changes a person’s legally recognised sex “for all purposes”, were unclear. And so they put in a safety clause (section 23) to give future governments the power to sort out any problems later.
Sex Matters is calling on the Government to use this clause to modify the operation of the Equality Act 2010 to put it beyond doubt that the terms “sex”, “male”, “female”, “man” and “woman”, for the purpose of sex discrimination laws, mean biological sex and not “sex as modified by a Gender Recognition Certificate”.
As will be obvious to anyone who cares about free speech, so-called “gender-critical” opinions – that sex in humans is binary and immutable, and that recognising this fact sometimes matters – are among the most censored in modern Britain (Spectator, Spiked, Telegraph, Times Higher). Clarifying the law isn’t a panacea, but it is the first step to reclaiming the right to speak freely about the reality of sex in the public square.