Weekly news round-up

FSU calls on West Yorkshire Police to wipe records of ‘Quran-gate’ pupils

As reported in the Times, the Free Speech Union is calling on the police to delete the ‘non-crime hate incidents’ from the records of four pupils at a school in West Yorkshire who were suspended over minor, accidental damage caused to a copy of the Quran.

The teenagers in question were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield last week for allegedly ‘desecrating’ a holy book (Express, Mail, Spectator, Spiked). Despite the abolition of blasphemy laws in England and Wales in 2008, a local Labour councillor, Usman Ali, decided it would be a good idea to use that word in an already febrile local atmosphere to describe what these children had done. “We all need to work together to make sure this terrible provocation does not set back community relations for years to come,” he said in his public statement (Spectator). An unfortunate choice of words, that. Back in 2021, a teacher at another secondary school, Batley Grammar, was forced into hiding in fear of his life for the – apparently similar – ‘provocation’ of showing cartoons of Muhammad during a lesson about free speech and blasphemy (Guardian). Although perhaps Mr Ali isn’t aware of that – Batley is, after all, fully nine miles distant from Kettlethorpe.

The suspensions were put in place after a student (who happens to be autistic) reportedly brought a copy of the Quran into school “on a dare” having lost a game of Call of Duty with his mates (Spiked). That might not make a lot of sense from an adult’s perspective, but then as Ben Sixsmith said, “kids make odd decisions” (Critic). Out on the school tennis court, he and his friends read aloud from it then walked back inside the school, where another kid knocked it out of their hands and on to the floor. Apparently, it sustained a small tear and a smudged page.

For this, the four students were suspended. The police were then called in. At a meeting with ‘community leaders’ at a local Mosque last Friday, Chief Inspector Andy Thornton – who is leading the investigation into this dreadful crime – said the students’ treatment of the book has been recorded as a ‘non-crime hate incident’ (or NCHI).

In our letter to Inspector Thornton, we have asked for assurance that the boys at the centre of the story have not had NCHIs recorded against their names – can it really be true? – and, if they have, to remove them immediately.

Last July, the professional body for the police in England and Wales, the College of Policing (CoP), updated its guidance on the recording of NCHIs following the judgement in the case of Miller v The College of Policing [2021] EWCA Civ 1926. According to the CoP, “Not all incidents reported need to be recorded. A record should only be made where it meets the threshold” set out in the National Standard for Incident Recording Counting Rules (NSIR). Those rules define a Hate Incident as: “Any incident, which may or may not constitute a criminal offence, which is perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by prejudice or hate.”

Given that the school has said there was no “malicious intent” on the part of the four children involved (BBC), the recording of a non-crime hate incident is prima facie inconsistent with the definition contained in the NSIR, as there was no motivation of prejudice or hate (although it may have been perceived as such, having been described in such an inflammatory way by Usman Ali). Unlike actual crimes, NCHIs recorded against children’s names remain on their records when they reach adulthood.

As the FSU’s General Secretary, Toby Young, wrote in the letter to Inspector Thornton: “We are hard pressed to imagine a sequence of events more likely to chill public debate and freedom of expression than recording this episode as a ‘hate incident’ and attaching that data to the children’s records, in spite of the absence of any malicious intent.”

A source close to the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, told the Times: “These are very concerning reports. The Home Secretary is clear that the police response should always be proportionate and consider the welfare of young children as a priority over any perceived insults.”

You can read our letter in full here.

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 due to 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 that designated ‘democratic socialism’ a protected belief, but no equivalent protection 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.

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 this week, for instance, the global unelected health agency, the World Health Organisation, announced it will move forward with its plans to make amendments to the International Health Regulations (2005), which would give it new far-reaching powers to counter ‘dis-’ and ‘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.

The Online Safety Bill and the future of Signal in the UK

Encrypted messaging app Signal has joined WhatsApp in threatening to leave the UK if the controversial and much-delayed Online Safety Bill forces it to break users’ privacy — the legislation paves the way for ‘client-side scanning’, an algorithmic process in which firms scan all private messages before encrypting them to ensure they contain nothing illegal (Evening Standard, Guardian, Telegraph, Times).

Signal, which has around 40 million active users worldwide, would “absolutely, 100% walk” if the bill goes ahead in its current form, according to company president Meredith Whittaker.

When asked if the bill would jeopardise Signal’s ability to keep its users safe, Ms Whittaker told the BBC: “It could, and we would absolutely 100% walk rather than ever undermine the trust that people place in us to provide a truly private means of communication. Encryption is either protecting everyone or it is broken for everyone.”

In August 2022, the CEO of rival service WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, made similar comments, noting that “if we had to lower security for the world to accommodate a [regulatory] requirement in one country, as a business decision, that would be very foolish for us” (BBC).   

Both Signal and WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and receiver of a message can read its contents.

Ms Whittaker and Mr Cathcart were referring to a specific clause in the Online Safety Bill that requires tech firms to make their “best endeavours” to deploy new technology to identify and remove child sexual abuse and exploitation content if existing technology isn’t suitable for that purpose on their respective platforms (Sky News).

The Bill did already contain a proposal to give Ofcom – the regulator tasked with overseeing implementation of the bill – the power to require deployment of existing “accredited technology” for that purpose. Under the revised version of the legislation, however, Clause 110 enables Ofcom to demand that tech firms deploy or develop new technology to help find abuse material and stop its spread (Guardian).

WhatsApp and Signal are worried that Ofcom may well ask online services providers to pursue ‘client-side scanning’, a controversial surveillance method which allows providers of end-to-end encrypted communication services to automatically scan private chats, messages, texts, images, videos and speech sent from that ‘client’s’ phone for suspicious content which could then automatically be reported to the police (Evening Standard).

The fundamental problem with client-side scanning for companies like Signal and WhatsApp is that it undermines their unique selling point, namely, secure, end-to-end encryption.

Critics say the technology could be subject to “scope creep” once it’s installed on phones and computers, so it isn’t just used to search for illegal content (Computer Weekly). That’s obviously a worrying possibility, not least because freedom of expression and privacy are mutually reinforcing rights. 

As Ms Whittaker says: “Encryption is either protecting everyone or it is broken for everyone.”

The case for the Government’s amendment is that it will protect children. According to the National Crime Agency, there are between 550,000 and 850,000 people in the UK who pose a sexual risk to children, and it’s not difficult to understand why secure, end-to-end encryption might prove useful to those wishing to circulate depraved images online. Last year, the then Home Secretary Priti Patel argued that “things like end-to-end encryption significantly reduce the ability for platforms to detect child sexual abuse” (Telegraph).

But is Clause 110 a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Back in 2021, Apple abandoned attempts to introduce its own client-side scanning software after 14 top computer scientists, including encryption pioneers Ron Rivest and Whit Diffie, found its plans were unworkable, open to abuse, and threatened internet security (Tech Times). Their paper Bugs in our pockets: the risks of client-side scanning, identified 15 ways that states, malicious actors, and even targeted child abusers, could exploit the technology to cause harm to others (Computer Weekly). Even the UK’s own Information Commissioner’s Office has said that encrypting communications actually strengthens online safety for children by reducing their exposure to threats such as blackmail (Guardian).

Online speakeasy with Meghan Murphy – register for tickets here!

Our next members-only Online Speakeasy is ‘Defeating Twitter Bans and Defending Free Speech’, featuring FSU General Secretary Toby Young in conversation with Meghan Murphy, the founder and editor of Feminist Current, a feminist website and podcast, and host of YouTube channel The Same Drugs. Join us on Zoom at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8th March for this online Speakeasy. FSU members can register for the event here. If you’re not yet a member, but would like to attend, you can join here.

In 2019, Meghan spoke about gender identity in the Scottish Parliament, urging legislators not to make the same mistakes as Canada and the US, where laws and policies around trans-identifying people were passed without proper consideration of how they might impact society – and women and girls in particular. So it will be fascinating to get Meghan’s take on Scotland’s Gender Recognition (Scotland) Reform Bill, which recently passed into law, abolishing the requirement for people to have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria before gaining a so-called gender-recognition certificate, and reducing the time someone has to live in their acquired gender from two years to three months.

Does she agree with UCL’s Head of Social Research, Professor Alice Sullivan, for instance, that (gender) critical voices were ignored during the development and subsequent Parliamentary scrutiny of this legislation (Times)? Was she surprised when UN special rapporteur Reem Alsalem was given the brush off by the ex-First Minister Nicola Sturgeon after raising concerns that this “unfair, rushed, vague and contradictory legislation” could open the door for violent males who identify as men to abuse the process (Times)? And what are her thoughts on the Scottish Prison Service’s policy (now temporarily halted) of housing violent male rapists who self-identify as female in women’s jails alongside a population of female offenders known to contain some of the most vulnerable people in society, often with complex histories of trauma, including sexual and domestic abuse (TelegraphTimes)?

You can find Meghan on Twitter here and Substack here. To whet your appetite for the FSU’s Speakeasy, you can listen to Meghan’s appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience here and her TRIGGERnometry appearance here.

Roald Dahl ebooks automatically updated to include ‘progressive’ censorship

In an unsettlingly dystopian move, readers who bought electronic versions of Roald Dahl’s works prior to Puffin Books making hundreds of ‘progressive’ revisions to the classic tales have had their eBooks updated automatically, and without their consent (Breitbart, Reclaim the Net, Times).

Owners of Roald Dahl eBooks have discovered that the online versions have been updated to contain the newly censored text, with hundreds of changes to language related to weight, mental health, violence, colonial-era literature, gender and race.

The news is all the more disappointing given that late last week Penguin Random House (of which Puffin is an imprint) appeared to back down over the changes, agreeing to publish the ‘original’ books alongside the newly revised versions.

However, it now seems clear that the company’s revised plan will only apply to ‘hard’ rather than ‘digital’ copies.

Speaking to The Times, Dahl’s biographer Matthew Dennison accused the publisher of “strong-arming readers into accepting a new orthodoxy in which Dahl himself has played no part”.

Dennison, who wrote the Dahl biography Teller of the Unexpected, added: “For me there’s an irony to the current automatic updating of Dahl’s eBooks. Time and again, in his writing for adults as well as children, Dahl championed the bullied against the bullies. Yet here we have a kind of cultural assertiveness that strong-arms readers into accepting without alternative – though, happily, not without demur – a new orthodoxy in which Dahl himself has played no part.”

Free Speech event for University of Cambridge Students – get involved here!

If you are a student at the University of Cambridge, or know someone who is, the Living Freedom salon returns to campus on 16th March at Sidney Sussex College. The Salon is supported by the Free Speech Champions and will explore the historic roots and contemporary realities of freedom of conscience. Full details of the talks and speakers can be found here. This event is open only to Cambridge students.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer