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 us turn the tide against cancel culture.
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter is definitely maybe perhaps back on
After months of back and forth, including a legal battle with Twitter, the self-styled “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk now looks set to take charge of the social media company (FT, Reuters, WSJ). The deal, if it goes through this time, raises questions over what the platform might look like under the Tesla entrepreneur – and whether regulators and politicians will be able to stomach it.
Musk’s vision for encrypting Twitter users’ direct messages, for instance, looks like an obvious source of conflict with the UK government. A ministerial lobbying campaign in recent years has tried to discourage tech companies from rolling out end-to-end encryption. Government officials fear they will become unable to read users’ messages at will, something they argue is important when trying to tackle terrorism or other serious offences (FT).
And what of the billionaire’s leanings towards looser forms of content moderation? Speaking to the Telegraph, the FSU’s General Secretary Toby Young said that he “cannot see Elon Musk being willing to remove content from Twitter that’s perfectly legal but which some purse-lipped puritan has decided is too dangerous for adults to be trusted with”. Maybe not, but will his libertarian instincts lead to a run-in with the Government, particularly given that the Online Safety Bill threatens social media companies with huge fines and even jail terms for directors if they fail to do enough to stop ‘harmful content’?
The FSU writes to YouTube about its censorship of Russell Brand
On the subject of online censorship, the FSU has written to YouTube about its removal of a Russell Brand video, allegedly for breaching its Covid-19 medical misinformation policy after he claimed that Ivermectin had been approved by the National Institutes of Health as a safe treatment for the virus. In spite of correcting his mistake and apologising – the drug had been approved for use in clinical trials, but not for general use – Brand’s video was removed and he received a warning. As Brand pointed out in a follow-up video, you can still find videos on YouTube of people saying the Covid vaccines are 100% effective against infection, which we now know isn’t true. So why remove his video but not these ones? We’ve argued that since YouTube is clearly exercising public functions, it is subject to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and, as such, this censorship is an unlawful interference with Mr Brand’s freedom of expression. In addition, we’ve argued that it’s a breach of his Article 1 property rights. We’ve asked YouTube to restore the video and withdraw the ‘lifetime’ warning it issued to Mr Brand. You can read our letter in full here.
Leave the adults alone – what we really need is a Children’s Online Safety Bill
Last month, five former culture secretaries wrote an article for theTelegraph in which they argued that “watering down” the Online Safety Bill would “put children at risk”. That was a reference to the fact that the Bill as currently constituted will empower Ofcom to impose large fines on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube if they fail to remove content that’s harmful to children (ConHome). A case in point is Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017. Last week, a coroner concluded that the material Molly had seen on social media that appeared to encourage suicide had “contributed to her death in a more than minimal way” (Guardian).
The verdict was met with a chorus of voices clamouring for the bill to be passed as quickly as possible, including that of Prince William, who said that protecting young people from harm should be “a prerequisite, not an afterthought” for social media companies (Independent).
Writing in the Spectator, Toby felt this was a classic straw man argument: “None of the bill’s opponents object to holding the Silicon Valley giants to account for the death of children like Molly.” The actual reason critics object is that the Bill doesn’t just aim to protect children from disturbing material, but grown-ups as well, including content that’s ‘legal but harmful’. No one yet knows exactly what legal material the Bill’s proponents think adults need to be protected from, although in July the Government did publish an “indicative list” of content it would like social media companies to “address”, including “some health and vaccine misinformation” (Telegraph). But as Toby pointed out on GB News, the problem with trying to incorporate nebulous, almost entirely subjective concepts like ‘misinformation’ into law is that they will inevitably be abused by political activists and defenders of official orthodoxy to silence their opponents – with the Russell Brand imbroglio a classic example of the fact that only information that challenges the status quo falls foul of this standard.
So what guarantee do we have that it won’t just be heterodox content that’s classed as ‘misinformation’ after the Online Safety Bill is passed and YouTube becomes an even more zealous enforcer of health and vaccine orthodoxy? We need laws in place to prevent social media companies censoring legitimate discussion and debate in the name of protecting people from ‘misinformation’, not laws encouraging them to ramp it up.
That’s why the FSU will be spending the next few weeks trying to persuade the Government to turn this piece of legislation into the Children’s Online Safety Bill. As Toby put it in the Spectator, “By all means let’s have a Bill that makes the internet safer for teenagers. But adults should be able to judge for themselves just how dangerous it is to watch videos by Russell Brand.”
Please help us mount an effective campaign against this censorious Bill by donating to the FSU.
Why no one trusts the police anymore
Gender-critical media commentator (and FSU member) Caroline Farrow has criticised Surrey Police after officers “swooped on her home and arrested her in front of her children” over a series of allegedly “malicious” posts on chat board KiwiFarms, which she denies writing (Christian Today, Mail, Reclaim the Net, Sun).
Speaking to GB News, Ms Farrow said, “I have been arrested for what was a twitter spat about gender issues.”
One obvious question here is why the police are still behaving like this. Back in May, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Andy Cooke, used his first interview in post to make clear that the police were not the thought police, and that chief constables needed to “avoid politics with the small p”, follow the law and remember that “different thoughts” are not an offence (Times).
In July, the Chief Executive of the College of Policing warned that the police should stop wading in to spats on Twitter and focus on solving crime (Telegraph).
And just this week, the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, told the Tory Party conference: “We need to get back to common sense policing, empowering the police to tackle the issues facing the public, not policing pronouns on Twitter or non-crime… hate incidents.”
“Unfortunately,” as Toby Young pointed out to the Mail, “it seems like Surrey Police didn’t get the memo.”
After confiscating Ms Farrow’s electronic devices – including one used by her autistic daughter for home schooling purposes (“You never know with these birthing people, sarge”) – she was taken outside her house while officers conducted a body-search, before being driven to the local police station where she was held in a cell for several hours.
“The investigation into these allegations is very much ongoing and relevant enquires are being carried out,” said Temporary Detective Chief Inspector David Bentley – which is more than you can usually say for Surrey Police. According to Home Office figures, between April 2021 and March 2022, they closed 29,614 of 69,199 reported offences without identifying a suspect – in percentage terms, that means 42.8% of crimes committed in the county were left un-investigated. Of the ‘high harm’ offences committed that Surrey Police did actually investigate – i.e., serious sexual offences, child abuse and violent domestic abuse – the force’s ‘clear-up rate’ was just 13.4%. The solve rate for all reported burglaries, meanwhile, was 3.5%, while the rate for theft of cars was 1.4%.
But can the current crisis of public confidence in the police be blamed solely on flat-footed coppers in Surrey and elsewhere bungling their operational priorities? The FSU’s Research Officer, Carrie Clark, thinks not. Writing for Spiked, she points out that the problem isn’t necessarily incompetence, but an increasingly clear political bias fuelled by lobby groups like Stonewall.
The continued willingness of the police to defy a number of recent legal rulings and go after critics of transgender ideology like Caroline Farrow is a case in point.
In Harry Miller’s trial last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that expressing views critical of gender-identity ideology shouldn’t be treated as a police matter (Spiked). More recently, the judgement handed down in Maya Forstater’s employment appeal tribunal ruled that gender-critical beliefs, including the belief that sex is immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity, was a protected philosophical belief (Times).
And yet despite the fact that these legal victories made clear that gender critical beliefs are perfectly lawful, officers still persistently trample over freedom of speech and even the law in the name of trans rights.
Caroline Farrow’s case is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Last month, an official Sussex Police social-media account warned users not to question the gender identity of convicted child sex offender John Stephen Dixon (now identifying as Sally Ann Dixon), who is reportedly being sent to a women’s prison. Sussex Police told critics that any “hateful comments” directed towards the convicted child abuser would not be tolerated. They claimed that referring to Dixon as a man met the definition of a ‘hate crime’ and advised critics not to express their views. In other words, the police’s bias towards trans ideology led them to prioritise the feelings of a convicted paedophile over free speech. It took an intervention from Suella Braverman to get Sussex Police to apologise.
Earlier this year, women’s rights campaigner Jennifer Swayne was arrested and detained for 10 hours by Gwent Police for allegedly causing “offence”. Her crime? Putting up posters saying “No Men in Women’s Prisons”.
In July, feminist campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen was visited by police after warning online that gender self-identification would be exploited by male sex offenders to get access to vulnerable women. Police recorded this as a ‘hate incident’.
And in August, lesbian campaigners from Get the L Out were ejected by police from Cardiff Pride for carrying signs reading “Lesbians don’t like penises”.
So why is it that despite the Miller and Forstater rulings, the police still seem determined to engage in a politically motivated crusade against those holding the ‘wrong’ (i.e., gender critical) views?
Maybe they’ve forgotten Robert Peel’s nine principles of policing. Issued in 1829, they form the basis of modern policing by consent. Principle five, in particular, should from now on be required reading: “Officers should seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy.”
The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!
Register here for our forthcoming Online Speakeasy with comedian, writer, actor and presenter Jack Dee on Wednesday 12th October and here for our Online Speakeasy with historian, author and television presenter Neil Oliver on Wednesday 9th November.
You can see a calendar of all our events on our Events page. As that is a public page, you cannot book members-only events on the website, so do please look out for regular emails from FSU Events for full details, including links for tickets and registration. Members who have opted to hear about FSU Events should have received an email this week. If you have not received this, do check your inbox, including your junk folder, and get in touch if you can’t find it there, using [email protected].
We have two excellent sessions at the Battle of Ideas Festival taking place in London on the weekend of the 15th and 16th October. Toby will be speaking on a packed panel debating Online Safety vs Free Speech on Saturday afternoon, and the Free Speech Champions will discuss Winning Young Hearts and Minds on Sunday afternoon, with panellists including Professor Alice Sullivan and Rod Liddle. Members can access special discount tickets by entering the promo code FSU-BattleFest2022 at the top of the ticket page. Do come and say hello to us at our stall where we’ll also be selling some merch.
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