Weekly News Round-Up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’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 us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Johnny the Walrus

An Amazon staffer worked himself up in to tears last week over the online retailer’s decision to sell Johnny and the Walrus, a children’s book that likens being transgender to pretending to be a walrus (Daily Mail). “I’m sorry, I want to preface this…”, the unidentified staffer says, wiping away tears in a video first obtained by Libs of TikTok. “This is really tough content.” The outburst occurred during a meeting in which senior managers discussed how to reassure staff that they understood just how “traumatic” the book’s rip-roaring success (250,000 worldwide sales, according to The Washington Examiner) had been for transgender individuals. “If you’re gender nonbinary,” the meeting’s host makes clear at one point, “this is super triggering … I would understand if you needed to leave.” 

The book’s blurb provides a clue as to the type of “traumatic” content the intrepid, cognitively resilient reader might find lurking beneath the triggering dust jacket:

Johnny is a little boy with a big imagination. One day he pretends to be a big scary dinosaur, the next day he’s a knight in shining armour or a playful puppy. But when the internet people find out Johnny likes to make-believe, he’s forced to make a decision between the little boy he is and the things he pretends to be – and he’s not allowed to change his mind.

And that’s it. The most you can say about it politically is that it pokes gentle, allegorical fun at some of the worst excesses of transactivism. But like all successful children’s stories, it’s pulled along by a deeper, underlying message, which is essentially that of self-acceptance.

To reduce the trauma the book is causing, Amazon removed Johnny and the Walrus from its various ‘children’s’ book categories and repositioned it in the ‘politics’ category. Ads for the book on Amazon are also now being rejected by the tech giant on the grounds that they’re not “appropriate for all audiences” – an umbrella term that’s typically used to justify banning advertising for books promoting incest and paedophilia, among other things. 

The Daily Signal points out that Amazon, as with every other Big Tech company, never censors, blocks, suppresses or re-categorises content that promotes woke ideas on the basis that it is in some vague, nebulous and never fully explained sort of way too “political” or “inappropriate” for its intended recipients.

For instance, Jacob’s Room to Choose is currently sat at #1,166 in Amazon’s ‘Children’s Prejudice and Racism’ bestseller list. Jacob, as the book’s blurb informs us, likes to wear dresses. One day he’s kicked out of the boys’ bathroom at school for wearing a dress. His friend Sophie, who doesn’t like to wear dresses, experiences something similar in the girls’ bathroom. “When their teacher finds out what happened,” the description goes on, “Jacob and Sophie, with the support [of] administration, lead change at their school as everyone discovers the many forms of gender expression and how to treat each other with respect.” Or how about Jack (Not Jackie), currently occupying position #335 in the ‘Children’s Siblings’ category? Susan has a little sister called Jackie, or at least, she does have a little sister called Jackie, until, one day, Susan realizes that her little sister “doesn’t like dresses or fairies – she likes ties and bugs!” Susan is confused. Disappointed, even. “Will she and her family be able to accept that Jackie identifies more as ‘Jack’?”, asks the Amazon description [spoiler alert: yes]. As if to emphasise just how apolitical the book’s contents really are, the blurb goes on to boast that it’s being “published in partnership with GLAAD [an American non-governmental media monitoring organisation, founded as a protest against defamatory coverage of gay and lesbian people] to accelerate LGBTQ inclusivity and acceptance”.

All great stuff, of course; but if Amazon feels that Johnny and the Walrus is too “political” for children, then what’s so different about these other two page-turners?

Who watches the watchmen?

In April, the Atlantic and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics co-hosted a three-day conference titled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy.” Topics of discussion included how and whether to regulate social-media companies; the pernicious influence of deep fakes and algorithms; the dangerous allure of conspiracy theories; national security; Russia; the storming of the Capitol on 6th January, 2021; and the implications of all this for the future of democracy. Our cousins over in The United States Free Speech Union have recently put out genuinely the most fascinating, thought-provoking summary of a conference you’re ever likely to see. It’s up on their Substack page under the title “Who will watch the watchmen?”

That’s a great title, by the way, isn’t it? So good, in fact, that we nipped in there first and used it for our recent report on the UK’s Online Safety Bill (on which the Times and the Critic both had useful pieces this week). You can find our “Who will watch the watchmen?” report here.

The university as asylum

The news site Power Line described an opinion from the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in the US as a “banner day” for free speech earlier this week. Speech First v. Cartwright dealt with a challenge to what the University of Central Florida (UCF) had been calling their “bias incident response” policy. UCF had imposed an “anti-discrimination” policy on their campus that described discriminatory harassment as taking many forms, including verbal acts, name-calling, graphic or written statements (via the use of cell phones or the Internet), or other conduct that may be humiliating or physically threatening. The policy further stated that “[i]n evaluating whether a hostile environment exists, the university will consider the totality of known circumstances, including, but not limited to” several factors. In court, UCF were forced to admit that “the totality of known circumstances” were hard to define clearly and would be entirely subjective in many cases. The compounding problem, however, was that on the basis of that unclear definition, UCF had proceeded to establish something called the “Just Knights Response Team” (JKRT). The purpose of this peculiarly monikered team, they said, was “to act as a clearinghouse for any bias-related incidents that may occur on UCF campuses”.

It’s fair to say the 11th Circuit Court wasn’t particularly impressed. The opinion goes on to describe specific students at UCF who feared running afoul of the policy. The UCF policy “objectively chills speech”, wrote Judge Kevin Newsom, because its operation “would cause a reasonable student to fear expressing potentially unpopular beliefs”.

Even more blunt is the concurrence from Judge Stanley Marcus, who was appointed to the appeals bench by President Clinton. Judge Marcus wrote separately:

A university that has placed its highest premium on the protection of feelings or safe intellectual space has abandoned its core mission. The protection of feelings or the creation of safe space rightly might be the foremost goal in some settings, like at a family dinner, but it is not right for a university. A university that turns itself into an asylum from controversy has ceased to be a university; it has just become an asylum.

The university as an asylum. An intriguing image. But was Judge Marcus invoking ‘asylum’ as a process whereby the dispossessed seek sanctuary, or as a benevolent institution in which the afflicted and the mentally unwell are provided with treatment? Rather than tackle that question head on, let us simply note that a few weeks ago the University of the Highlands and Islands placed a trigger warning on Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel The Old Man and the Sea. The book tells the story of an ageing Cuban fisherman on a quest to land a memorable catch, and it was felt that students should be warned that it contains “graphic fishing scenes” of a kind likely to cause psychological distress.

The free press and the coming threat of financial censorship

Anthony Blinken, Washington’s top diplomat, used the occasion of World Press Freedom Day (3 May) to criticise the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong governments for media restrictions and alleged harassment of journalists and dissidents worldwide (Times). Citing data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit advocacy group, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called China the biggest threat to press freedom in terms of the number of journalists under detention because of their work.

But is it unfair to single China out like that? A report from the Economist this week made clear that journalists are facing increasing restraints, legal threats and fatal attacks not just in authoritarian countries but in democracies too. “Globally,” it pointed out, “press freedom is in retreat.” Drawing on analysis by UNESCO of data on freedom of expression from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, it estimates that around 85% of people live in countries where press freedom has declined over the past five years.

V-Dem gives each country a score from 0 (least free) to 1 (most free). The global average weighted by population peaked at 0.65 in the early 2000s, and then again in 2011, before falling to 0.49 in 2021. This is the worst score since 1984, when the cold war was raging, and the two sides were propping up dictators on every continent.

Interestingly, though, neither the CPJ nor the Economist mentioned the threat posed to a free press – and, by definition, to free speech – by financial censorship.

Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi published a story this week about how PayPal, the internet payments giant replete with its own founding “mafia,” has recently been selectively de-platforming alternative media sites that publish stories contradicting some of the West’s reporting of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (the New York Post has the story too). Among those to have been banned are MintPress News, a left-wing web-based outlet, and Consortium News, founded by the late Associated Press investigative reporter Robert Parry in 1995 as one of the web’s very first independent, reader-funded news outlets.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, PayPal has form when it comes to limiting or permanently limiting users’ accounts. Only last year, for instance, PayPal division Venmo was sued for blocking payments associated with Islam or Arab nationalities or ethnicities. Even so, silencing news outlets would mark a radical new departure, according to Reclaim the Net. Going after cash, as Taibbi explains,

is a big jump from simply deleting speech and actually has a much bigger chilling effect. This is especially true in the alternative media world, where money has long been notoriously tight, and the loss of a few thousand dollars here or there can have a major effect on a site, podcast, or paper.

So does this mean the global financial system is the new battleground in the fight to defend freedom of speech? Sarah McLellan, writing in Spectator Australia, seems to think so. Citing Jesse Powell, Chief Executive of Kraken Bitcoin Exchange, she argues that “the traditional financial system has essentially been weaponised” and that losing free access to funding streams on account of one’s political views is tantamount to losing free speech. It’s certainly true, as Ramesh Thakur points out (Spectator Australia), that states have been engaging in financial censorship for some time: in 2019, the Russian government froze bank accounts linked to opposition politician Alexei Navalny; in February 2022, Canada froze the bank accounts of mostly peaceful anti-vaccine mandate protestors with no due process, no appeals process and no court order necessary; and in early 2022, SWIFT took the unprecedented move to cut Russia’s central bank from its global financial messaging service.

But that was all state led. The question is whether financial services companies like payment processors, banks, online platforms and credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard are also now starting to get in on the act of influencing what kind of speech can or cannot exist online.

Living Freedom Summer School Event

FSU Legal Officer and Free Speech Champions Universities Coordinator Karolien Celie encourages members to spread the word about the Living Freedom Summer School, taking place in London this summer. “The Living Freedom Summer School is a great opportunity for independent-minded young people to gather, think, question and debate big ideas in an open and friendly atmosphere,” she says. “Participants emerge not just with new ideas but new friendships. It’s a taste of what university life should be all about but too often isn’t.”

Free Speech Champions Event

Next Wednesday, 11th May, the Free Speech Champions will be “comparing notes across the pond” with North American university students, discussing how free speech and academic freedom can be defended. Host Karolien Celie will be joined by a panel including Emma Camp, who made waves with a recent New York Times article describing the culture of self-censorship on US campuses. You can find out more and register for the event here.

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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 us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer