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Friday, February 16, 2024

Spying on the Social Media Posts of Sports Fans and Banning Them From Stadiums for Wrongthink Isn’t Social Progress

The effort to classify political dissent as “hate speech” and punish heretics for their supposed crimes is one of the most pernicious threats at work in the world today.

Image Credit: The Free Speech Union

Tears welled in the eyes of Linzi Smith as she explained, her voice shaking, why she can no longer attend Premier League soccer games at the stadium 10 minutes from her home to root for Newcastle United. 

“I struggle to even come near the ground,” Smith told Toby Young of the Free Speech Union in a recent interview. “I get upset when I talk about it. I just don’t understand where it’s come from. I don’t know why someone’s gotten so offended by me just speaking my mind.”

Smith, a 34-year-old woman from Newcastle and a lifelong soccer fan, said she received an email from team security in November that her membership was suspended pending an investigation for an alleged hate crime. The investigation stemmed from tweets Smith had posted on X that she was told “could be seen as transphobic.” 

Smith, who is gay and helps her mother run a tea shop to pay the bills, assumed the matter would soon be cleared up since she had not engaged in anything she considered “hate speech.”

She assumed wrongly. For tweets stating that transgender women are not really women, Smith was banned for the remainder of the season and the following two, a decision she described as “devastating.” 

“I avoid the city now, especially if it’s match day,” she told Young. “I won’t even come down here and drink … every time I’m around here now, I’m just sick to my stomach, and I’m afraid of who’s around and who’s watching me.”

The fear Smith describes is understandable. Her life was upturned by social media comments. She was investigated and summarily found guilty (without being able to defend herself) by a soccer league. 

The idea that the Premier League is monitoring the social media posts of fans in search of “wrongthink” and launching independent investigations is startling, and it led some to brand the league’s intelligence unit “the Stasi spy agency.”

“As a historian of the Gulag and the Soviet secret police, this is one of the most chilling things I could ever have imagined seeing in the U.K.,” Giles Udny, an English writer, said of Smith’s case. “No exaggeration — it is straight out of the NKVD/KGB/FSB playbook.”

Just how many fans have been similarly targeted is unclear, though the Free Speech Union told MailOnline it is likely “hundreds of fans, possibly thousands.”

And though comparisons to the Stasi and NKVD are imperfect — both organizations were formal police units operated by socialist states — there’s no question that the word chilling is appropriate. 

In the United States, free expression is a right codified in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” But it’s a value that existed well before the legal document was ratified and represents the foundation of a moral and tolerant people. 

“Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression,” Albert Einstein observed in Ideas and Opinions. “In order that every man may present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”

The effort to classify political dissent as “hate speech” and punish heretics for their supposed crimes is one of the most pernicious threats at work in the world today. It is a force rooted in dogmatism, not truth, and a thirst for control over others. 

Historically, efforts to control speech have been employed by those with power to cement their own control. Those with power tend to be those in government and those closest to it, and it is they (and their supporters) who get to decide what speech qualifies as “hate” and “misinformation.” 

The view that dangerous, hateful, or fascist speech should be disallowed — No Free Speech for Fascists, the title of a 2021 book declares — is itself a deeply fascistic view. This is evidenced in no small part by the fact that the most notable fascist states of the 20th century despised free expression and free speech, which undermined their stated and actual goals (unity and control, respectively). 

The fact that many governments, including the United States, are now outsourcing their policing of language to private companies and institutions that share their views on what constitutes “hate speech” and “misinformation” is not a sign of progress. It’s but a pivot by authoritarians in their effort to control what is seen as true and false. 

“The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth,” George Orwell once observed.

Few could agree with this statement more than Linzi Smith, who is now banned from cheering for Newcastle United at St James’ Park after expressing her opinion that a biological man is not a woman.

This article first appeared in The Washington Examiner.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.