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.

PayPal backs down and reinstates the Free Speech Union’s accounts

On 15th September, FSU General Secretary Toby Young was notified by PayPal that it was permanently closing his personal account, as well as the accounts of the Daily Sceptic and the Free Speech Union, both of which he runs (GB News). The reason cited in all three cases was that the accounts had violated PayPal’s ‘Acceptable Use Policy’. Not that that really gave any clue as to the specifics of the alleged misdemeanour, because as the Mail explains, the policy “contains numerous ‘prohibited activities’ including transactions involving illegal drugs [and] stolen goods”.

The closest we came to an explanation was a message from ‘executive escalations’ in the company’s European HQ in Luxembourg, which included this sentence: “PayPal’s policy is not to allow our services to be used for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance.” (Spiked). Confusingly, PayPal then told the Times that it had demonetised all three accounts because the Daily Sceptic was guilty of spreading ‘misinformation’ about the Covid vaccines. Even more confusingly, that would constitute a breach of the company’s ‘User Agreement’, not its ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ – so why start out by accusing us of violating the second, not the first? Toby’s suspicion was that someone at PayPal simply didn’t like his politics and had removed his accounts for that reason, without bothering to create a proper alibi (Spectator).

Perhaps they didn’t think they’d need one; that an organisation like the FSU would go gently into the night, just like so many others it has financially bullied in the past (Critic). They hadn’t reckoned on our General Secretary. After breaking the news of the FSU’s demonetisation on GB News he “went to war”, writing about the episode for the Spectator, Spiked and the Telegraph, undertaking interviews (Disruption Banking, Laura Dodsworth), encouraging his social media followers to boycott the company and making guest appearances on various TV and radio shows (GB News, News NTD, Sky News Aus). The story quickly gained traction. (Breitbart, Epoch Times, GB News, Mail, Spectator, Spiked, Telegraph, Times), and across the British media the company’s actions were roundly condemned, with thousands of people subsequently taking to social media to declare they were cancelling their accounts in solidarity with the FSU and UsForThem, an advocacy group set up by a group of mums to lobby against school closures during lockdown which was also deplatformed by PayPal (Mail).

The political pushback was similarly ferocious. According to the Sunday Express, politicians “reacted with fury to PayPal’s actions, with one Conservative peer saying she had ‘never seen so much cross-party outrage’ over the move”. Danny Kruger MP took to the floor of the House of Commons to ask a question about PayPal’s actions, and, just as importantly – and pointedly – about the regulatory environment in which companies like PayPal presently operate (Epoch Times). Baroness Fox raised the issue – to loud cheers – on BBC1’s Question Time (you can watch a clip here).

Dozens of MPs and peers from across the political divide – including 21 Tory MPs and 15 Tory peers as well as four crossbench peers, a Labour peer and a Labour MP – also wrote to Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, urging the government to hold PayPal to account and pointing out that the “common theme” among the organisations and individuals to have had their accounts closed — the Free Speech Union, the Daily Sceptic, Law or Fiction, and UsforThem — was that they were all prominent “champions of free speech” who have expressed “critical, non-conforming views on lockdown policies”. Understood in that context, they suggested, it is a little difficult “to avoid construing PayPal’s actions as an orchestrated, politically motivated move to silence critical or dissenting views within the UK”. Mr Rees-Mogg then gave an interview to the Telegraph in which he accused PayPal of trying to cancel the FSU, and told the company that it must now “justify its behaviour” (also Express, Independent).

Less than 24 hours later, the accounts were reinstated (Mail, Telegraph) (UsForThem’s account was reinstated over the weekend). At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, PayPal notified Toby that it had restored all three of the accounts it cancelled a couple of weeks ago — the FSU, the Daily Sceptic and his personal account (Spectator). In each case the email explained that these accounts had in fact been under ‘review’ and that after ‘input’ from its ‘stakeholders’, the company had decided to lift the block (Spiked).

Have you been affected?

The FSU will now phase out PayPal from its payment systems. We sent out emails to all our members who are using PayPal to process their membership dues last Tuesday 20th September, asking them to change their payment details. If you did not receive a notification email from us, then you don’t need to take any action. Conversely, if you did receive an email from us and haven’t yet taken action, we would be very grateful if you could change your FSU payment method to one of our alternatives: credit/debit card or direct debit. In order to do this, please log in to your FSU account, click on “My Subscription”, then in the “Actions” box click on the yellow “Change payment” button and select a new payment method. If you experience any difficulty with this, please contact us directly on admin@freespeechunion.org

FSU to campaign on the issue of financial censorship

The fact that PayPal has reinstated the FSU’s accounts is welcome. But what happened to our organisation shouldn’t be dismissed as some sort of aberration. As we hurtle towards a cashless economy, it’s part of a global trend towards weaponising Big Tech and financial services systems to suppress dissent of every kind. We saw it in the case of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shutting down the Freedom Convoy earlier this year. But there are other, less high-profile instances of people with dissenting views being deplatformed by companies like Patreon, CrowdJustice and GoFundMe. Nor should it be forgotten that the PayPal account of U.K. Medical Freedom Alliance – an organisation that raises perfectly lawful questions about Covid vaccines – remains frozen. (As in Toby’s case, the head of the UKMFA, Liz Evans, has also had her personal PayPal account closed.)

That’s why the FSU will now be lobbying the Government to develop a legislative mechanism capable of preventing Big Tech companies headquartered outside the UK from censoring people or groups in this country for the expression of legal but dissenting views (or, as in the case of the Free Speech Union, for simply defending those who express legal but dissenting views).

If there’s a positive to be come out of this it’s that the publicity generated by PayPal’s actions has brought the wider issue of financial censorship to the attention of both Houses of Parliament. The  Telegraph , for instance, reported that financial services companies could soon “be banned from blocking the accounts of campaign groups for political reasons”. That’s because Conservative backbenchers are apparently “considering launching an amendment” to a parliamentary bill that would effectively ban companies from freezing campaigners’ accounts. One source quoted in that Telegraph article said that ministers are likely to accept an amendment. If that’s true, then this could be a big moment in the fightback against financial censorship.

But legislative work takes time, which means that we need to keep that pressure up, mobilising the extraordinary public opposition to PayPal’s recent behaviour to tell our politicians that we don’t want a Chinese-style social credit system to be rolled out across the West, the only difference being that instead of the Chinese Communist Party enforcing ideological dogma, it’s woke capitalist corporations based in California.

Using the Free Speech Union’s campaigning tool to write to your MP is a great way to keep up the pressure and remind legislators that there’s strong feeling on this issue among the public. So if you’re as outraged as we are by PayPal’s attempt to cancel the Free Speech Union and other groups, please use this tool to send a template email to your MP, urging them to ask a question about it in the House of Commons. The process only takes two minutes, and the link is here.

New study reveals multiple threats to free speech on campus

Researchers have found that more than a third of students think free speech is “threatened” on campus, and that many also perceive a “chilling effect” that discourages open debate. The study, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, is based on two new representative surveys of UK university students, amounting to almost 2,500 respondents, as well as several representative surveys of the general public that were carried out to identify where views on these issues diverge between the two groups. The study was also designed to allow comparisons with a previous survey carried out in 2019 to reveal trends in attitudes and perceptions since then.

Focusing on the study’s finding that 34% of students now say free speech is either “very” or “fairly threatened” in their university, the Mail declared that “free speech on campus is under threat”. The Guardian, meanwhile, was quick to spot that that left 65% of students that believe campuses are places of “robust debate” — hence the paper’s headline that “Most students think UK universities protect free speech”. That might be true, but, as the Mail points out, the 34% figure has risen from 23% in 2019, which represents a 47% increase in the proportion of students worried about threats to free speech on campus.

Sifting through the report’s other findings, it also becomes clear that the intensity of feeling among students who say free speech on campus isn’t under threat has weakened over time: in 2019, 30% felt that free speech on campus was “not at all threatened”, while in the latest data that figure falls to just 18% ­– a 40% decrease. Relatedly, the primary data reveals that 25% of students “very or fairly often” hear of incidents at their university where free speech has been inhibited, a proportion that was just 12% back in 2019.

The Telegraph and GB News focused on the fact that half of students now feel that those with conservative views are reluctant to express them at their university – that’s compared to just 37% who felt the same in 2019. This perception has grown most among students who say they’d vote for the Conservative Party, rising from 59% to 68% over the last three years. It’s a finding that’s been repeatedly corroborated over the years. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange, for instance, shows that self-censorship in British academia is over twice as high among conservative academics in the social sciences and humanities than among those on the left (23%). More recently, in January 2022, a study by the Legatum Institute discovered that 35% of British academics surveyed self-censor, with levels twice as high among conservatives.

The King’s College London research found that majorities of students support specific elements of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill when these were put to them, such as a policy requiring universities and students’ unions to maintain codes of conduct relating to freedom of speech.

The Bill is scheduled to resume its journey through Parliament next month and is designed to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in English universities. We believe it cannot be passed too soon. To ensure that further debate of the Bill is informed by relevant evidence of the free speech problem at English universities, and strong arguments for how it can be resolved, we’ve recently sent our latest briefing about it to allies in both Houses of Parliament. Over the next few weeks – hopefully not months! – we’re looking forward to engaging with those allies to make sure that the free speech protections contained in the Bill are as robust as possible.

You can find our previous briefings on the Bill here and here.

New survey explores reaction of PayPal customers to the FSU’s cancellation

During the period that the FSU’s PayPal account was suspended, campaign group The Democratic Network carried out a survey designed to trace attitudes towards the payment processor among its customers. In total, 3,172 people took part in the survey, all of whom had PayPal accounts. Of those taking part, 1,872 support the work of the Free Speech Union and/or UsforThemUK, 745 oppose that work, and 388 described themselves as “neutral”. The results show that as news of the US company’s actions broke, the vast majority (86%) of supporters stopped or reduced their use of PayPal. Within that group, 45% stopped using PayPal temporarily, 31% cancelled their PayPal account altogether, and 20% reduced their use. Does this indicate that boycotts might be one way for people to fight back against politically motivated financial censorship? Possibly, although if any FSU members who are also academics are reading this, it would be interesting to see an attempt to replicate these findings in a much larger quantitative study.

Also worth noting is that when asked about their experience of problems with other organisations, 7% of supporters said that they had experienced payment problems with other organisations or payment providers in the past two years, while 21% had experienced other problems with Big Tech companies over the same period. Interestingly, these figures rose to 8% and 30% for opponents, which suggests to the report’s author that they may “have sympathy with the problems experienced by the FSU and UsforThem, even though they may not know enough about them or actually support them”.

The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!

Our book launch for Andrew Doyle’s The New Puritans was a sell-out event this week. Members can still buy signed copies of the book at a special rate, using this link. If you missed it, we’ll be publishing the video very soon.

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 via that route, 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 events@freespeechunion.org.

We have two excellent sessions at the Battle of Ideas Festival taking place in London in two weeks’ time on the weekend of the 15th and 16th of 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.

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.

And a warm welcome to all those people who joined in the past couple of weeks because they were so horrified by PayPal’s attempt to cancel us. You will be getting your welcome packs in the post within the next fortnight.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

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