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.

Next online event – Teaching Tolerance: Understanding free speech issues in schools

Join us on Tuesday 13th September at 6.30pm to consider how diversity of opinion and a fair approach to free speech can be upheld in schools. Our panel of experts and campaigners includes anti-racist campaigner Adrian Hart of Don’t Divide Us, critic of gender ideology and co-founder of Conservatives for Women, Caroline Ffiske, and Clare Page, a London parent who raised the alarm over highly politicised teaching materials being used at her child’s school. They are all campaigning for the right of parents to access and challenge ideologically driven teaching materials in UK schools. Our panel will be chaired by FSU General Secretary, Toby Young.

Register now to receive the Zoom link.

Unlike our usual online events, this one will be open to anyone who is interested in the issue, so please feel free to share the details.

More details of future FSU Events will be sent to members in an email next week, so please look out for it and email events@freespeechunion.org if you don’t receive it.

Free Speech Champions take on the university ‘trigger warning’

Free Speech Champion and founder of York University’s Free Speech Society, Euan Clayton, recently appeared as a guest on Radio 4’s AntiSocial podcast. The episode in question – “‘Upsetting content’ warnings at universities: a harmless courtesy or oversensitivity?” – explores the origins of the trigger warning, considers how they’re perceived by students and academics, and examines the findings from experiments as to whether they ‘work’ or not. It’s well worth a listen (here).

Champion Anna Keenan has also written a comment piece on the persuasive effect of university trigger warnings, noting that and how they subtly nudge students towards certain pre-moralised interpretations of a text (e.g., ‘this is harmful’, ‘this is wrong’, ‘this is upsetting’) and thus deny them the chance to think freely about that text’s possible meanings, complexities and historical specificities for themselves (here).

“Three cheers for Terry Gilliam!” – rave reviews for a musical the Old Vic tried to cancel

Last year, the Old Vic cancelled Monty Python star Terry Gilliam’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, after the venue’s sensitive younger theatre staff – along with a group of ‘emerging artists’ recruited to the theatre’s Old Vic 12 project – said his perfectly lawful views on trans rights made them feel “uncomfortable” (Times). The decision to cancel Gilliam came shortly after the acclaimed film director committed the “unspeakable crime” – as he himself put it sarcastically (Independent) – of [gasp!] taking to Facebook to defend artistic freedom of expression and throw his weight behind “socially aware, dangerously provocative and gut-wrenchingly funny” African American comic Dave Chappelle, before urging people to [splutter!] watch his contentious Netflix show.

Responding to his cancellation, Gilliam said it was “very sad that a great cultural institution like the Old Vic allowed itself to be intimidated into cancelling our production”. Likening the younger members of staff who lobbied Old Vic bosses to scrap his show to “Neo-Calvinists”, he added: “They are totally closed-minded. [To them] there is only one truth and one way of looking at the world. Well, ‘f*** you!’ is my answer to them.” (Times).

Fortunately, on the morning that news of Gilliam’s cancellation broke, Danny Moar, the Director of Bath’s Theatre Royal (and Stephen Sondheim devotee), stepped in to save the day and show a bit of “theatre solidarity”. (Times).

According to the Times theatre critic, Quentin Letts, the resulting production is a “joy” to behold. No doubt it will be “sickening” for London’s Old Vic to hear this, he sighs (with perhaps a little more glee than is strictly compatible with regret), but the fact is that the show is a “success”. For a few days after the Old Vic theatre cancelled Gilliam’s production, “it seemed the gatekeepers of the arts had demonstrated a Stalinist power to suppress free speech”. Thanks to the quick-thinking of Bath’s Theatre Royal, however, “Stalinism proves as porous as the Maginot Line”. Letts then recounts how “at the finale there [was] not only the usual vibe about humanity defying adversity but also of theatre solidarity seeing off the wicked witch of wokery”.

“Three cheers for Terry Gilliam” and his “visually astonishing” musical, says the Telegraph’s Chief Theatre Critic, Dominic Cavendish: “For reasons of artistic self-expression alone, it’s a must-support rather than a mere must-see.” 

“Gloating may be unseemly,” writes Patrick Marmion for the Mail, “but Terry Gilliam has earned the right to crow about his stunning new production of Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical.” It is a “relief”, he adds, “to see that artistic merit can still triumph over small minds”.

Speaking of which, any members of the public wishing to see something a little more “comfortable” this autumn than a camp, funny, dark, rollickingly good musical co-directed by a man who occasionally recommends comedic content to his Facebook followers, might like to consider the Old Vic’s forthcoming Whose Planet Are You On? Staged to mark International Day of Climate Action 2022, the production “brings together four monologues exploring the impact of individual actions and the force of collective responsibility on the future of our planet”. Tickets still available (lots and lots).

The free speech implications of a recent whistle-blower complaint filed against Twitter

A whistle-blower complaint filed last week by Twitter’s former head of security, Peter ‘Mudge’ Zatko, has prompted urgent inquiries by several governments including the US and several EU nations (CNN, Washington Post). The former hacker, US government scientist and senior Google security expert’s claims also feature heavily in the Termination Letter Elon Musk filed recently with the US Securities and Exchange Commission as part of the billionaire’s ongoing attempt to exit his $44billion deal to purchase Twitter. (Mail, Independent).

While much of the media attention has focused on Zatko’s claim that Twitter’s leadership misled investors, government regulators and its own board about the company’s security vulnerabilities, buried within this 84-page filing are allegations that suggest Big Tech’s commitment to the ‘safeguarding’ of online privacy, free speech and freedom of expression might not be quite as firm or unwavering as the architects of the UK’s Online Safety Bill would have us believe.

Among the document’s free speech ‘lowlights’ is the claim that despite Twitter’s service being blocked in China, the company is in fact financially “dependent upon revenue coming from Chinese entities”. Quite what the “Chinese entities” in question get out of this peculiar arrangement is never stated explicitly, although the filing does allege that “Twitter executives knew that accepting Chinese money risked endangering users in China and elsewhere” because the information they were receiving “would allow them to identify and learn sensitive information about Chinese users who successfully circumvented the block, and other [Chinese] users around the world”. Despite acknowledging that this was “a major ethical compromise” – not least because those “circumventing the block” will tend to be pro-democracy dissidents living in fear of being discovered by the Chinese authorities – the executives in question apparently went on to tell Mr Zatko that the company was “too dependent upon the revenue stream to do anything other than attempt to increase it”.

Zatko is particularly damning in his assessment of Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal, whom he recalls having suggested the company should “consider ceding” to the Russian Federation’s censorship and surveillance demands, effectively becoming “complicit” with the Putin regime. Why? Because it would be “a way to grow users in Russia”.

Finally, and contrary to Mr Agrawal’s public statements, Zatko alleges that Twitter executives had “little or no personal incentive” to monitor the number of automated ‘bots’ being used on the platform to orchestrate attempts by various state and non-state actors to manipulate public opinion by artificially amplifying certain viewpoints. Senior executives were instead compensated solely based on Twitter’s number of monetizable daily active users – a “perverse” incentive structure, as attorney Michael P. Senger notes, as it could easily serve to increase the number of bots operating on the platform.

Mr Agrawal vehemently disputes these claims and accuses his former colleague of presenting a “false narrative” of the company’s inner workings. (Telegraph). He might be right, of course, but it’s worth pointing out that Zatko has worked at the highest levels of government and industry for the past 30 years, and many leading voices in the field of cybersecurity have been quick to come forward and endorse his credentials and track record – indeed, one former Twitter software engineer even shared data that appeared to support one of Zatko’s specific claims regarding the company’s mismanagement of data. (The Verge).

The US Senate Judiciary will question ‘Mudge’ about his allegations on September 13th. (Times). Perhaps the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Committee tasked with scrutinising the Online Safety Bill should now do the same.

Pro-free speech MP Kemi Badenoch “prime candidate” to be next education secretary

According to sector and education policy figures the Times Higher has spoken to, Kemi Badenoch, the pro-free speech, anti-woke former Tory leadership contender who recently said that “some universities spend more time indoctrinating social attitudes than teaching lifelong skills or how to solve problems”, is “prime candidate” to be education secretary in a government led by Liz Truss, now the favourite to beat Rishi Sunak in the leadership race. (iNews).

If Ms Badenoch were to secure the education secretary post, the Times Higher believe it might open the door to a return for adviser Iain Mansfield, who quit the Department back in July, but was widely seen as the driving force behind the aggressive stance the Department for Education adopted towards universities it felt were stifling free speech on campus and getting too close to Advance HE, a charity many Conservative MPs believe is behind “the most egregious wokery” in higher education today, from initiatives to ‘decolonise’ curricula through to the rollout of unconscious bias training for academic staff and students. (Telegraph).

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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

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