Weekly news round-up

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 newsletter. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Gender conversion therapy ban – use our campaigning tool to write to your MP!

The Government announced last week that it would bring forward a bill to ban ‘conversion therapy’ – not just with respect to sexuality, but gender identity as well (Telegraph, Times). This is a complex issue, and the FSU is concerned about the impact such a ban might have on the free speech of doctors, therapists, teachers and parents, not to mention religious leaders. To ensure ministers are careful about what speech the law actually bans, any proposed legislation will need to be scrutinised very carefully. For instance, would a ‘conversion therapy’ ban in England and Wales make it a criminal offence for a parent to object to their child taking puberty blockers? In the state of Victoria, Australia, which passed a ‘conversion therapy’ ban last year, it is. That’s why we’re encouraging our members and supporters to email their MPs, using our campaigning tool, and share these concerns. The link to the campaigning tool is 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 the 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). On the topic of censorship, Meghan was permanently banned from Twitter in 2018 for saying – gasp! – 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.”

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 podcast appearance here.  

Regional Speakeasies – book your tickets here!

Having held very lively regional Speakeasies in Cardiff, Manchester and Edinburgh, the FSU continues its ‘national tour’ in February, with events in Oxford (7th February), Cambridge (8th February), Birmingham (15th February) and Brighton (20th February).

Come along to hear FSU staff members Ben Jones (Oxford), Karolien Celie (Cambridge), Tom Harris (Birmingham) and Toby Young (Brighton) discuss why free speech is worth fighting for. The Regional Speakeasies are a great opportunity to hear how our work is developing across many different fronts, including case work, research, campaigning and lobbying. In addition, there’ll be plenty of time for discussion, as well as socialising with fellow free speech supporters. Do come along to one and bring curious friends and colleagues, not forgetting to book your places via our Events page, which you can find here.

Labour MP Rosie Duffield “bullied” and “silenced” over gender reform

During last week’s House of Commons debate on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, Labour MP and prominent campaigner for women’s sex-based rights Rosie Duffield was heckled by her party’s own male backbenchers (Express, Mail, Sun, Telegraph). During her speech, she welcomed the Government’s move to make an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 preventing the Bill – which would cut the time it takes to legally change your gender, lower the age at which you can do it to 16 and eliminate the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria – from proceeding to Royal Assent. Ms Duffield went on to ask the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, whether he “recognised the strength of feeling among women and women’s rights groups and activists in Scotland that this Bill seeks to allow anyone at all to legally self-identify as either sex and, therefore, enter all spaces, including those necessarily segregated by sex, such as domestic violence settings, changing rooms and prisons?” (Times)

Writing in the Times, Jawad Iqbal describes what Ms Duffield had to endure while asking this question as “appalling bullying” – and Parliament TV’s clip of her speech makes for uncomfortable viewing. As soon as Ms Duffield gets to her feet, the atmosphere turns nasty. Clearly uncomfortable, she struggles throughout to be heard over the abuse directed at her from her own benches. Lips curl. Heads are shaken. Facial expressions register unnecessarily theatricalised versions of ‘disgust’, presumably as much for the watching cameras as for the purposes of ostracising Ms Duffield. Just out of shot, Lloyd Russell-Moyle can be heard working himself into a spittle-flecked rage, barracking Ms Duffield throughout, while former minister Ben Bradshaw shouts “absolute rubbish” just as she’s defending the need for traumatised female victims of male-perpetrated violence to have access to spaces that are segregated by sex.

“A woman Labour MP being shouted down by male colleagues for expressing her views?” queries Jawad. “Hardly a good look for the so-called progressive party.” And yet some of Ms Duffield’s colleagues see the situation quite differently. Speaking anonymously to Pink News, one Labour MP claimed that “[Rosie] thrives on the attention” and that “many” in the Labour Party “are getting tired of her constantly undermining us all and attacking colleagues”. You can certainly see why Ms Duffield this week chose to compare being in the Labour Party to an “abusive relationship” (Telegraph, Times, Unherd). The act of blaming someone or holding them responsible for a situation they didn’t actually create is a textbook form of ‘gaslighting’ – i.e., a particularly egregious form of emotional manipulation. 

Audio has also since emerged of Matthew Doyle, a senior aide to Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, briefing against Ms Duffield (Guido). Mr Doyle was caught on tape dismissing the MP as “irritating” and “disingenuous” and suggesting it might be helpful if she “spen[t] a bit more time in Canterbury [her constituency]” rather than “hanging out with JK Rowling”. Quite what this “irritating” woman is supposed to bother her pretty little head with once she’s returned to her constituency and allowed her male colleagues to properly discuss the impact of Scotland’s Bill on women’s rights, Mr Doyle doesn’t say. Powdering her nose? Tending to some children? Smiling vacuously and speaking only when spoken to by male constituents? No doubt the Whips Office will pass along a list of domestic chores in due course.

A party source has since claimed that Mr Doyle wasn’t briefing against Rosie (Guido). In response, Ms Duffield was quick to point out that whatever we want to call Mr Doyle’s remarks, their intended effect remains the same: “When women are considered difficult, these statements are obviously designed to undermine us. Sow a little seed of doubt… rumours that might catch on.” (Mail).

Jawad Iqbal concludes his piece for the Times with the following observation: “If Rosie Duffield – a single mother, a survivor of domestic abuse and a passionate advocate for women’s rights – no longer feels welcome in Labour, then who and what is the party for?”

Politically motivated financial censorship – a call for information!

The FSU needs your help. We’re looking for examples of politically motivated financial censorship that you, or anyone you know, may have experienced or heard about.

In the wake of PayPal’s attempt to deplatform the FSU last summer, Sally-Ann Hart and Andrew Lewer tabled an amendment to the Financial Services and Markets Bill. The amendment addressed “refusal to provide services for reasons connected with freedom of expression” and stated that: “No payment service provider providing a relevant service may refuse to supply that service to any other person in the United Kingdom if the reason for the refusal is significantly related to the customer exercising his or her right to freedom of expression.”

However, the amendment was withdrawn after the City Minister promised Mr Hart and Mr Lewer that the issues it was seeking to address would be included in the terms of reference of a forthcoming statutory consultation about the Payment Services Regulations. That consultation has now begun, and it’s great to see that, as per the agreement with Ms Hart and Mr Lewer, it will now assess whether clearer guidelines are needed about when companies can withhold or withdraw services from customers for political reasons.

We think this could be an important moment – an opportunity to check the creeping trend towards a Chinese-style social system in countries like ours.

On the subject of the Government’s open-mind, it’s particularly encouraging to see that in the consultation (which you can see here), the Government makes it “very clear” that “the legitimate expression of differing views, is an important British liberty”, that it “does not support ‘cancel culture’” and that “regulations must respect the balance of rights between users’ and service providers’ obligations, including in relation to protecting the freedom of expression of anyone expressing lawful views”.

In order to provide the Government with as many examples of financial censorship as we can, we’re asking our members and supporters to send us any examples they may have come across, particularly if it involves them. To be clear, we’re after examples of financial services companies (such as high street banks), payment processors (like PayPal) and crowdfunding platforms (IndieGoGo) either withholding or withdrawing services from customers because they disapprove of their perfectly lawful views.

You can get in touch via our email address: [email protected]. Alternatively, you can direct message us on Facebook (here), Instagram (here) or Twitter (here).

Sign our Jeremy Clarkson petition!

Last Friday, we started a petition urging the CEO of ITV not to sack Jeremy Clarkson from his job as host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It now has over 57,000 signatures.

Whatever your view of his remarks about Meghan Markle in the Sun, it cannot be right that he should lose his livelihood as a consequence. Amazon has indicated it will not commission any more seasons of Clarkson’s Farm or The Grand Tour. Does he deserve to lose his job at ITV as well?

Clarkson has apologised for any offense his comments caused and that should be enough. As a society, we believe in the possibility of redemption for hardened criminals. Why can’t we extend the same charity to someone whose only crime is to have said something offensive?

We’d love to get the number of signatures up to 75,000. Please sign it here and share it with your friends. We need to send a message that it’s time to cancel cancel culture.

Meta to reinstate Donald Trump (for now…)

Facebook and Instagram parent Meta has finally decided to reinstate the accounts of former President Donald Trump “in the coming weeks”, two years after his suspension in the wake of the civil unrest in Washington on 6th January 2021 (Guardian, iNews, Mail, Sky News, Telegraph, Times). An announcement regarding Mr Trump’s accounts had been expected for some time, with reinstatement looking likely. Speaking in October, for instance, Meta’s President of Global Affairs, Sir Nick Clegg, said: “We believe that any private company – and this is really regardless of one’s personal views about Donald Trump – should tread with great thoughtfulness when seeking to, basically, silence political views.” (FT)

Self-deprecating as ever, Mr Trump responded via his own Truth Social social media platform with the following statement: “Facebook, which has lost billions of dollars in value since ‘deplatforming’ your favourite president, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account. Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting president, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution.”

Meta originally handed Mr Trump an indefinite ban from both Facebook and Instagram in January 2021, accusing him of using their platforms to incite a “violent insurrection against a democratically elected government” (Telegraph). However, the decision was subsequently referred to the company’s Oversight Board. Despite upholding the decision to ban the former president, the board also criticised Meta’s decision to do so indefinitely, describing this as a “vague, standardless penalty” and noting that in doing so the company had deviated from its normal penalties.

In response, the company announced that Trump’s suspension would be in place for two years (i.e., until this month) and that it would “look to experts” to help it decide whether to reinstate him after that.

On Wednesday, Sir Nick announced Trump’s accounts would be restored. “The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying – the good, the bad and the ugly – so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box,” he said.

Brendan O’Neill wasn’t particularly impressed. He thought he’d feel some relief “when the social media giant came to its senses”. Yet now that it’s happened – “now that Meta has decreed that Trump has served his time in the virtual wilderness” – all that he says he’s been left with is a sense of disquiet about “the historically unprecedented dominion this small clique of the woke rich enjoys over the liberty to utter”. (Spiked).

Author and free speech campaigner Jacob Mchangama was more optimistic. Meta had made the right decision, he said, not least because of the emphasis the company’s statement seemed to place on its users’ rights to access information. Suppressing free speech is a “double wrong”, he continued, because it violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. Even if Trump’s rhetoric “fires up his supporters”, knowing what he’s thinking, and being able to criticise what he’s saying, is “likely a net advantage to democracy”. Anthony Romero, ACLU’s Executive Director, concurred. Our “collective ability to speak – and hear the speech of others – online,” he said, was important, and the biggest social media companies should therefore “err on the side of allowing a wide range of political speech, even when it offends”.

Is the company’s position a reflection of Mark Zuckerberg’s stated belief that Meta is a “champion of free speech” (New York Times)? It’s certainly a point Sir Nick was keen to return to while doing the media rounds in the wake of the announcement. Asked by NBC News why Meta was reinstating Mr Trump he said: “We’re not trying to censor everything that everyone says in an open and free democracy. We think that open and free debate on the rough and tumble of democratic debate should play out on Facebook and Instagram as much as anywhere else.”

Some left-leaning politicians and civil rights organisations denounced Meta’s decision. They argued that Jacob Mchangama’s “double wrong” of restricting speech and suppressing information is a price worth paying because some views (usually those that they happen not to like) are too dangerous for anyone to hear. Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, for instance, said that by allowing Donald Trump a platform, Mr Zuckerberg was “destroying our democracy”. The Anti-Defamation League claimed the company had chosen to “platform bigotry and divisiveness”. The NAACP, meanwhile, was “astonished” by the decision to re-platform someone who “can spew hatred, fuel conspiracies, and incite a volent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol building”. And so on and so forth.

Maybe they shouldn’t get too worked up. For all its stirring talk about the importance of free speech, Sir Nick’s statement did go on to caution that Trump’s accounts would be reinstated with “new guardrails in place” to deter him from saying anything too inflammatory in future. “In the event that [the former President] posts further violating content,” he said, “the content will be removed, and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation.” Because the ‘violating content’ in question is any content that ‘delegitimises’ an upcoming election or is related to the QAnon conspiracy theory, it’s probably safe to say that Donald Trump’s second stint on Facebook will likely prove a whistlestop affair.

According to US campaign group Media Matters, nearly half of Donald Trump’s recent social media posts on his own social media platform pushed election fraud claims or amplified QAnon content. A similar report by Accountable Tech calculated that over the past six months, Trump’s Truth Social posts would have broken Facebook’s rules more than 350 times – the equivalent of nearly two prohibited posts a day. 

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer