Weekly news round-up

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. A particular welcome to all those members who joined before our membership fees went up. Since you got in under the wire, you won’t be charged the new rate for at least a year – and the same goes for all our existing members.

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 (although not if you’re reading this on a desktop). If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Understanding Tyranny and Liberty – tickets now available for our next live event!

Our Autumn/Winter events programme kicked off last week with Is There a Left Way Back from Woke? – the video of which is now available in full on our YouTube channel (here).

There are many more events to come, including, for the first time, events in Belfast and Exeter. Full details will be shared soon.

Our next event is on Tuesday 3rd October at the Art Workers’ Guild in London, when Professor Jeremy Jennings will deliver a guest lecture on the topic Understanding Tyranny and Liberty: Lessons from Alexis de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill, followed by a Q and A and audience discussion, with FSU General Secretary Toby Young in the chair. The lecture will explore what lessons we can draw from Tocqueville’s insights into the social pressure to conform as well as John Stuart Mill’s, captured by the phrase “the tyranny of the majority”.

In-person tickets are available here, to join on Zoom, register here.

Battle of Ideas Festival 2023 – get your special FSU discount tickets now!

The Battle of Ideas festival returns to Church House, Westminster on 28th and 29th October. As ever the festival motto is: “Free speech allowed, free thinkers welcome.” There’s plenty to discuss, from the cultural and corporate wars on free speech to the rise of apocalyptic thinking around climate change and artificial intelligence. There will be debates on the resurgence of populism and the crisis in our schools – plus much more across 100+ sessions.

The FSU will be there all weekend with our stall and will be hosting this session on Saturday – Online Censorship: An International Clampdown? – as part of the Free Speech Strand. FSU members can get 20% off weekend standard, weekend concession, one-day standard and one-day concession tickets by clicking here.

Together event – discounted tickets available for FSU members

Together’s second anniversary event takes place in London on 29th September and FSU members can get £5 off tickets by using the code “FSU” at the checkout – you can find out more and book your tickets here.

Since its founding, Together has been at the forefront of many of the battles to defend freedom in the UK, mobilising its supporters against Covid lockdowns, de-banking and 15 minute cities. The group’s second anniversary event at Piranesian Central Hall in Westminster will welcome over a thousand people to discuss how we can preserve our hard-won civil rights.

Confirmed speakers include: Dr Jay Bhattacharya, Matt Goodwin, Sherelle Jacobs and Julia Hartley-Brewer.

FSU attend House of Lords free speech event!

On Wednesday, FSU staff along with some well-known and familiar faces (such as Maya Forstater, Helen Joyce and Baroness Ann Jenkin) were invited to the second annual parliamentary event in support of freedom of expression. MC’d by FSU Advisory Council member Andrew Doyle, the event was a great opportunity for pro-free-speech groups to get together, including Battle of Ideas, Big Brother Watch, Don’t Divide Us, Freedom in the Arts, LGB Alliance, Together and We Are Fair Cop. Each organisation gave a short elevator pitch, outlining their biggest achievements over the past 12 months and what they see as the biggest threats to free speech on- and offline in the coming year.

FSU Chief Legal counsel, Dr Bryn Harris, updated the room on our priorities for the next 12 months, namely, defending workers compelled to abide by the ‘progressive’ values of their employers, pushing the courts to recognise that academic freedom is a fundamental right and working with friends and supporters in Parliament to reform public order legislation (being offensive really shouldn’t bean offence).

The FSU’s new Events and Ian Mactaggart Programme Officer, Vinay Kapoor, also outlined the work we’ve been doing to defend free speech at universities thanks to the Ian Mactaggart Programme, which provides grants to individuals, societies and other groups defending academic freedom.

Latest episode of the FSU’s weekly podcast is out now!

On this week’s episode of ‘That’s Debatable’, the talking points include the news Sibyl Ruth has settled her legal case with her former employer, Cornerstones Literary Agency, and the company has now issued an apology! Hosts Tom and Ben also discuss the Canadian public high school library that has removed all books published before 2008 amid confusion around a new equity-based ‘weeding’ process, and some recent research from our friends at the campaign group Alumni for Free Speech, which shows that around 214 times as much money is being spent by the UK’s top universities on equity, diversity and inclusion than on free speech protection.

Well worth a listen – the link to download the latest episode in full and for free is here.

UK Parliament finally passes censorial Online Safety Bill

The UK’s controversial and long-awaited Online Safety Bill, which contains sweeping new surveillance and censorship measures, concluded its final Parliamentary debate on Tuesday and will soon achieve Royal Assent, meaning it will then become law (BBC, Reuters, Times).

The FSU is disappointed that the legislation has been passed. But thanks to our lobbying and campaigning, as well as our members who contacted their MP to express their misgivings abtou the Bill, the version of reaching the statute books is at least an improvement on earlier versions.

In particular, the obligation on social media companies to “address” so-called ‘legal but harmful’ content, as set out in Clause 13 of the original legislation, has now been removed. Our objection to this clause was essentially that the phrase “address” risked becoming a euphemism for “remove”. If the Government had published a list of legal content it considered harmful to adults and imposed an obligation on social media companies to say how they intended to “address” it, that would have nudged them to remove it. But thanks to the lobbying of the FSU, that obligation has now been dropped.

The new Harmful Communications Offence, which was to replace s127 of the Communications Act, as well as the Malicious Communications Act, and could have seen people jailed for two years for sending or posting a message with the intention of causing “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress”, has also been scrapped. In other words, the legislation won’t now criminalise saying something, whether online or offline, that causes ‘hurty feelings’, and the FSU deserves most of the credit for that.

In addition, the original duty imposed on social media companies to “have regard” for freedom of expression – which is so undemanding, it’s virtually pointless – has now been bumped up to “have particular regard”, thanks to us.

Finally, we were ahead of the curve in promoting user empowerment as an alternative to the de facto removal of ‘legal but harmful’ content – in the final iteration of the legislation, the locus of responsibility for online safety has shifted from paternalist providers to empowered users. The result is that instead of saying how they intend to “address” harmful content in their terms of service, companies like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) will now have to say what tools they’re going to make available to their users so they can act as their own content moderators.

It’s important to note that the passage of the Bill onto the statute book is not the end of the story as far as the FSU’s campaigning work goes.

Ofcom’s Chief Executive, Dame Melanie Dawes, this week confirmed that the UK’s new regulator for online safety will shortly be setting out the first set of standards that it expects tech firms to meet when it comes to offering users the option to filter out ‘harmful’ content that they don’t want to see.

The FSU will be watching closely to see how those ‘standards’ end up influencing the user empowerment tools that each social media platform subsequently offers its users.

There is, for instance, a significant risk that the big providers will establish a ‘safe’ mode as their default setting, so that if adult users want to see ‘lawful but awful’ content they will have to ‘opt in’.

That may mean perfectly lawful yet politically contentious views – e.g., an article in the Spectator by a gender critical feminist – will be blocked by default since woke victim groups will argue that any such views constitute incitement to hatred based on their protected characteristics. 

Of course, users will have the option of adjusting their settings so they can see that content, but some won’t want to in case, say, a colleague sees something ‘hateful’ over their shoulder and reports them to HR for ‘harassment’. 

And what about those who won’t even be aware they have a choice, or are aware but don’t know how to do anything about it?   

We know that that’s likely to be a lot of people thanks to research carried out by behavioural scientists on what’s known as ‘choice architecture’ – i.e., the way in which customers are presented with choices will influence their subsequent decision-making. As countless studies in this area have now demonstrated, one of the most powerful tools available to organisations wishing to ‘nudge’ consumers down certain behavioural pathways is the humble ‘default setting’. That’s because consumers tend to be too lazy to revise those settings or don’t know how.

The devil will be in the detail of what each social media platform’s version of ‘safe browsing’ looks like. If a platform’s ‘safe mode’ becomes the default setting, how easy will it be to switch it off? As one recent study put it, “If defaults have an effect because consumers are not aware that they have choices… [they] impinge on liberty.”

FCA in firing line over “whitewash” review into recent de-banking scandal

The City watchdog has “serious questions” to answer after overseeing what has been dubbed a “whitewash” review into the recent de-banking scandal, MPs have said (Mail, Telegraph, Times)

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) claimed that it found “no evidence” that customers have been debanked for their political views after conducting a weeks-long review into the matter.

The inquiry was prompted by the revelation that back in June, Coutts bank had closed former UKIP-leader Nigel Farage’s account because his views on issues like LGBT rights, Net Zero and Brexit did not, as an internal document put it, “align with our values”.

The FCA has confirmed that its report considered the period between July 2022 and June 2023. However, when asked specifically about Mr Farage’s case, one senior regulator at the FCA refused to repeat the right-wing former Brexiteer’s name, but did concede that there was a “high-profile example” that was being looked at separately by the bank involved, before adding that the case “fell outside of the reporting period”.

It is unclear how the FCA reached that conclusion given that Mr Farage first announced he had been debanked by Coutts on Friday 30th June, 2023.

The admission that the very case that prompted the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, to ask the FCA to urgently investigate whether the practice of de-banking was widespread was not considered by the financial regulator prompted an immediate backlash from politicians and some in the City who accused the City watchdog of failing to conduct a thorough review.

Speaking anonymously, one minister said: “It’s a whitewash. But we shouldn’t be too surprised that the body charged with preventing de-banking has failed to find evidence of it and be self-critical.”

Mr Farage himself described the review as “a total stich-up” and said: “We need wholesale change of the personnel running the FCA.” (Telegraph).

On that note, a group of prominent Conservatives and former financial industry figures wrote to the Chancellor back in July, raising their concerns that the FCA’s encouragement of what is known as “environmental, social, and governance”, or ESG policies, may have inadvertently encouraged the culture within banking that led to Nigel Farage losing his Coutts account (Telegraph).

However, the FCA’s executive director for consumers and competition, Sheldon Mills has since denied that the watchdog’s inclusivity initiatives could be held responsible for subtly cultivating a culture in which de-banking a customer like Nigel Farage, who holds dissenting views on issues like LGBT rights, could come to seem not just legitimate, but socially and morally just.

Mr Mills, who helped draw up guidelines on gender identity for major companies while previously the chairman of controversial pro-transgender charity Stonewall, said: “We are very clear that banks should not be terminating current accounts on the basis of political views or opinions which are legally held.” (Telegraph).

Kind regards,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer