Free Speech Union: Weekly News Round-Up

Dear Mike Buchanan,

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.

Is this the end of the thought police?

Police forces are “not the thought police”, declared the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Andy Cooke, on Monday 16 May: “Thoughts, unless they become actions, aren’t an offence.” (Daily Mail). It felt like a big moment in the fight for free speech and freedom of expression. Yet as The Spectator pointed out, the fact Cooke felt he had to make this intervention – in his first public interview, no less – reminds us just how bad things have become in English policing in recent years.

Cooke was appointed as HM Inspector of Constabulary in April 2021, and the role includes overseeing the assessment of forces and making recommendations for improvement. He’s clearly keen to push back – or at least be seen to be pushing back – against the rise of thought policing in our country. A good example of that type of policing would be the ‘non-crime hate incident’ (or NCHI). According to College of Policing guidelines drawn up in 2014, NCHIs are any non-criminal act of hostility towards someone with a ‘protected’ characteristic that’s perceived to be motivated by hatred of that characteristic. NCHIs can be reported by the victim or by anyone who witnessed the incident and are recorded irrespective of whether there is any objective evidence to identify the hate element. NCHIs can show up on advanced criminal records checks, preventing people getting jobs.

Thankfully, in December of last year, the former police officer Harry Miller won a landmark legal battle against the recording of NCHIs, and the College of Policing guidelines were ruled unlawful. The Free Speech Union was proud to back Harry in that case. Had he lost and had to pay the other side’s costs, we’d pledged to help with that bill. More recently, the Free Speech Union helped Kevin Mills. Two years ago, Kevin was handed an NCHI by the police after he refused to work with a customer who he feared wouldn’t pay the bill. The FSU intervened and Kent Police have now deleted the NCHI from his record.

There is, however, still plenty of work for the FSU to do. That’s because police forces in England and Wales aren’t required to notify someone if an NCHI is recorded against their name – and for all we know, the police are continuing to log ‘non crimes’ in the same way. Given that an estimated 250,000 NCHIs have been recorded since 2014, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of people still unwittingly carry one around on their records. If you’d like to know more, the FSU’s detailed briefing on NCHIs can be accessed here. If you’d like a quick, five-minute read on the topic, our FAQs on NCHIs is here.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the police are proudly boasting about continuing to investigate and record NCHIs. You can read what our General Secretary Toby Young had to say about that in the Belfast News Letter here.

Douglas Murray event – tickets still available!

Tickets are still available for our exclusive members only online speakeasy on Wednesday 25 May with bestselling author, award-winning political commentator and founding Director of the FSU Douglas Murray. Douglas will be discussing his latest book – The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (2022) – and answering questions from the audience. If you’re not yet a member, but would like to attend, then you still can – just click here to join the FSU and you’ll be able to secure your place at the event. Discount membership only costs £2.49 a month. If you’d like to know a bit more about Douglas’s work prior to the event, you can watch a clip of his appearance on Fox News earlier in the week here. Last month, Douglas also appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast. You can download that episode here.

James Esses fundraiser – show your support

The Times ran an interview this week with an FSU member, James Esses. As many of you will know, James is a former barrister who was (and still is) hoping to retrain as a therapist. Last year, he was expelled from his university course at the Metanoia Institute for launching a public petition that expressed reservations about encouraging children who identified as trans to undergo irreversible, life-changing medical procedures. A few weeks later, Childline removed him from his volunteer role as a counsellor on the same grounds. James’s worry is that all of this has “irretrievably damaged” his professional standing in a career that he “wanted to spend the rest of [his] life doing”. James is currently bringing a case against his university course provider for the discrimination he faced on account of his gender critical beliefs. You can show your support for James by donating to his CrowdJustice fundraiser.

Are algorithms currently the biggest threat to online free speech?

Social media platforms will often place ‘viewing constraints’ on content that automated moderation systems have flagged for breaching their ‘community standards’. One of the chief disadvantages of the viewing constraint, however, is that it commits social media companies to a contestable form of censorship. Where a platform asks its users to give explicit consent before viewing a piece of content, for example, it performs an action that is visible to the producers – and consumers – of that content.

According to an article in The Conversation, however, most user-to-user platforms are now capable of deciding what content gets seen, where, when and by whom, without that decision-making process ever becoming visible. It’s only in the past five years that this technique of ‘algorithmic audiencing’ has taken off, which perhaps explains why its interference with online free speech has so far largely gone unnoticed. To put the scale of that ‘interference’ into context, censorship techniques like viewing constraints are only adopted in cases of ‘inappropriate’ content (which makes up a tiny fraction of all content on any given platform), while algorithmic audiencing is now systematically applied to all content hosted by a platform.

As the article’s authors go on to explain, the fact that social media newsfeeds still appear to be ordered chronologically is not because they actually are, but because an algorithm is working away in the background to feed users particular types of content that ‘align’ with their known preferences and tastes. Alignment of that kind is important to social media companies because it keeps users engaged… and engagement can be monetised, “yielding up more user attention on targeted advertising, and more data collection opportunities”.

But is monetisation the only motivating force behind the rise of algorithmic audiencing?

Writing for the Spectator this week, Laura Dodsworth isn’t so sure. (An extended version of that article can be found over on her Substack page.) There are, she said, “growing concerns that the political and ideological preferences of the platforms may also be shaping what we see online”. Although there is a danger that the Online Safety Bill will stifle the freedom of the press once it passes into legislation, the fact is that news companies are “already self-censoring and serving up content that they know will work favourably with social media algorithms”. Perhaps it could be argued that the motivation in those cases is still largely financial – news companies do, after all, have to turn a profit. But what about the inner logic of the algorithms themselves – is it really all about ‘monetisation’, or might they have been built to pursue other goals too? It’s certainly curious that one social media producer Laura spoke to told her that “environmental protesting is ‘pushed upwards’ on Twitter – ‘XR content takes off like a rocket’ – while immigration and race are pushed down”.

The platforms themselves “insist that this isn’t the case, and there’s currently no way of knowing for sure”. Why? “Because the algorithms remain closely-guarded secrets”; secrets that – for now at least – remain beyond the purview of regulators. 

The Living Freedom Summer School is now open for applications!

The applications deadline of 29 May is fast approaching for the Living Freedom Summer School taking place in London this summer. Organised in partnership with the Free Speech Champions project, this is a fantastic opportunity for young, critical thinkers to meet one another and debate the key freedom issues of our times. The full programme is now available. Speakers include the FSU’s own Toby Young and Karolien Celie, former cop and free speech campaigner Harry Miller, James Esses, writer and campaigner Caroline ffiske, Professor Frank Furedi, journalist Bruno Waterfield, Professor Arif Ahmed, writer Ella Whelan, author Dr Joanna Williams, journalist and historian Dr Zoe Strimpel… and many more.

Is Netflix on the road to recovery after catching a “woke mind virus”? 

Back in April when Netflix reported that it had lost 200,000 subscribers during the first financial quarter of 2022 and expected to lose a further two million subscribers before June, Elon Musk was on hand to offer some valuable context: the problem, he explained, was that Netflix had been infected by a “woke mind virus” that was making the streaming service “unwatchable”. This week, however, Netflix launched what the Daily Mail described as “a crackdown on woke workers trying to silence artists such as Dave Chappelle”. As is well known, staff at the tech company had previously targeted the likes of comedian Chappelle for jokes about transgender people with the aim of cancelling him. Last year, some of the firm’s activists also staged protest walkouts, and, on one remarkable occasion, even tried to force their way into an executive meeting to make their feelings known. More recently, they published a letter with a list of demands that called on the company to “avoid future instances of platforming transphobia and hate speech, and to account for the harm we have caused”.

Long suffering Netflix bosses, Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos, finally appear to have had enough. The Telegraph, GB News and Metro all ran stories about the streaming service circulating an all-staff ‘culture memo’ in which it was made clear that there would be no “censoring of specific artists or voices” no matter how ‘harmful’ certain employees considered the content in question. “Not everyone will like – or agree with – everything on our service,” it conceded, before emphasising Netflix’s commitment to “supporting the artistic expression of the creators we choose to work with, programming for a diversity of audiences and tastes, and letting viewers decide what’s appropriate for them, versus having Netflix censor specific artists or voices”.

Is Netflix finally starting to recover from its “woke mind virus” and fight back against millennial authoritarians? Writing for Spiked, Brendan O’Neill doesn’t think so. “Free speech warriors” should calm down, he said. One “positive sounding memo” isn’t enough to be getting excited about. Context (and a good memory) is everything, he adds, because in its past and present editorial choices, its HR actions, its sacking of the actor Frank Langella, “this hyper-woke streaming giant has constantly consolidated the post-traditional, post-reason cult of vulnerability that passes for ‘liberal’ thinking in the 21st century”.

Still, the memo ends rousingly enough for “free speech warriors” of simple tastes. Addressing the company’s hardcore of perennially disgruntled staff, it notes that “you may need to work on titles you perceive to be harmful”, before offering the following, tacit reminder that what they signed up for when they joined the company was contractual employment: “If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, then Netflix may not be the best place for you.”

The “woke mind virus” at girls’ private schools

There was a shocking story in the Daily Mail earlier this week about a pupil at an independent girls school who was set upon by 60 of her classmates after she challenged a female member of the House of Lords who visited the school to talk about transphobia in Parliament. According to a teacher, the girl suggested to the speaker – a well-known political activist – that critical theory was taking precedence over biological reality when it came to defining women. The exchange was polite and respectful, but when the girl returned to the sixth form, she was surrounded by 60 pupils who screamed, swore and spat at her. She had a panic attack, ran to the toilets and collapsed. The school initially supported the girl, but in a volte-face that’s all too familiar it changed its mind and apologised to her classmates for failing to maintain a ‘safe space’. The girl was told that if she said anything ‘provocative’ in lessons she would be removed and forced to work in the library. After being repeatedly bullied, and with no pastoral support from the school, she eventually left. Needless to say, the school is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme.

Writing for website Transgender Trend, a teacher at the school who is sympathetic to the girl said: “It was probably somewhat naive of her not to realise that this is indeed an ideology and one with which you’re simply not allowed to disagree, however respectfully. To question its basic tenets is simply heresy and heretics in one way or another need to be exposed, attacked and gotten rid of. Even if they are such notable and seemingly untouchable figures as JK Rowling.”

JK Rowling later came out in support of the girl.

The Latest Free Speech Champions event is now available on YouTube

If you missed the FSC’s most recent live event, you can now catch-up with the video of ‘Self-Censorship on Campus: Comparing Notes Across the Pond’ over on the group’s YouTube channel (available here). On the night, Karolien Celie hosted four fascinating guest panellists: US students Emma Camp (who made waves recently with a New York Times article describing the culture of self-censorship on US campuses) and Stephen Wiecek, UK student Sam Bayliss (who has written previously on the topic of free speech for the Critic) and Canadian student Niloo Daliri. Along with a live audience, they explored the many ways in which students and academics are often pressured to avoid expressing their views, before then considering how they might work together to defend free speech and academic freedom.

Academics for Academic Freedom – University of Derby branch launch

Monday 16 May saw the launch of the University of Derby branch of Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF), with scholars from a variety of disciplines in attendance. The branch emerged spontaneously out of shared concerns regarding the growth of intellectual conformism within the UK academy, and the many recent attacks on public intellectuals such as, for instance, Professor Kathleen Stock. Derby is the second local AFAF branch to be formed this year, and others will be launching shortly. The branch hopes to work with the University to defend and promote free speech and academic freedom but has stressed that it will remain an independent voice. To find our more you can email the branch by clicking here, or following them on Twitter (@DerbyUniAFAF)

Sharing the newsletter

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

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