In August of 2020, Sasha White, an assistant literary agent at Tobias Literary Agency in New York, was fired for expressing her feminist stance on Twitter. Only four months later, White has launched a ground-breaking project to help others who find themselves in the same position.
The Free Speech Fund is a sub-project of Plebity, an organization co-founded by Sasha White and father Mark White which hosts in-depth interviews with outspoken people pushing back against a culture of silencing and censorship.
While some people are able to weather a storm of cancellation by relying on family or a nest-egg, not everyone is so lucky. For many, the fear of losing their job is a genuine barrier to free speech. In the United States, limited social safety nets such as universal health insurance or robust unemployment benefits mean that many families are only one missed paycheck away from disaster. The effect is a culture where only the privileged truly can afford the most basic of civil rights.
The Free Speech Fund aims to organize the masses to resist cancel culture by providing material support to those who face economic consequences for exercising their right to freedom of speech.
The launch announcement for the project states that the Fund is meant to serve two purposes:
“First and foremost it aims to provide a short term nest egg that can help someone get through the awful period after having been tossed under the bus by their frightened employer. Second, we hope that the Plebity Fund can provide just a little more assurance to people who want to speak out but are afraid.”
Plebity says they won’t necessarily only support feminist speech or speech they agree with, however, they do acknowledge limits on speech such as “speech that calls for violence or advocates criminal activity.”
The Fund works by building a large base of monthly members or one-time donors who pay into a shared fund pool. Anyone who has been fired or “otherwise significantly harmed” for their speech and can demonstrate economic need is eligible to apply for a grant from the Fund. Then, members will vote on who should receive the grant disbursement. The model is similar to an insurance pool or union - but for cancellation (and not only members can be recipients of the grant).
French feminist Marguerite Stern was approved last week as the first grant recipient, and the Fund is currently trying to raise $1,000 to help cover emergency costs related to the backlash she has received from transactivists.
In 2019, Stern launched a poster campaign again femicide in France. Her work inspired thousands of other women to take up the mantle, and now, she said in an interview with Plebity, “There are some cities where you can’t go in the streets without seeing at least one (poster).” Stern is also a member of Femen, and in 2013 was sentenced to prison in Tunisia for protesting topless.
Despite her lengthy feminist resume, Stern has recently received backlash from other feminists for not believing that men can become women and should be allowed in women’s spaces. She has lost most of her support group, can’t get a job, and has to move out of her apartment.
“I can’t find a normal job right now. I’ve become too famous for having a normal job, but not enough famous to make money,” she told Sasha.
She has received death threats, and says that there are places in France where she no longer feels safe to go. She became estranged from her family after writing about her experience of sexual violence in her youth, and doesn’t have many places to turn for support.
“When I was inside Femen, the death threats were coming from the extreme right and Islam. But now it’s coming from people who call themselves feminists.”
In December, Stern tweeted:
“Ça fait des mois que je suis dans une situation d’urgence et que je dois absolument déménager de l’endroit où j’habite mais je suis sans emploi donc impossible de trouver un appart classique.”
Roughly translated to English:
“I've been in an emergency for months and absolutely have to move from where I live, but I'm unemployed so I can't find a standard apartment.”
Even though it’s been hard, Stern says she wouldn’t change her life because she has a feeling of freedom now. She says she has nothing to lose anymore from continuing to speak out, so she might as well continue standing up for women.
Sasha hopes that Free Speech Fund will be able to support people like Stern who have lost everything for simply sharing their non-violent beliefs. “The point is to show solidarity,” she said. Sasha had been following Stern’s story for about a year, and expressed disappointment in how other feminists had turned on Marguerite.
“This is a woman who has devoted her life to this activism,” Sasha said, “she has stood up for women in the most intense possible way. She can’t necessarily get a normal job or apartment, she is very well known in France and gets a bad reception both in workplaces and in the press.”
Having been through it herself only a few months ago, Sasha knows how scary the ordeal can be. “Being fired for my speech was devastating,” she told 4W, “I was horrified to see my name smeared online and to be thrown out sans discussion by an employer with whom I had an excellent relationship.”
Sasha says that when she was fired, she received a torrent of threats and insults. However, she was also moved by how many people reached out to offer her support. Often, those people were looking for a way to provide concrete aid. The Free Speech Fund is a direct response to this outpouring of community support from both other gender critical feminists and people who simply support the right to speak freely in a democracy.
In an interview with 4W, Sasha and Mark White elaborated on the strategy behind the fund:
“The most effective strategy of cancel culture is to scare people about losing their livelihoods and being blocked from finding future employment. This understandably terrifies most people into silence. The fund is a way to directly weaken this strategy by joining in solidarity to provide concrete support for whoever has been targeted. The fund provides a way for those who are unable to speak out to still have a way to support those who do. And that in turn makes everyone less vulnerable. If the fund can gain sufficient prominence, its existence alone will weaken cancel culture. Acts of courage lead to more acts of courage. The fund is a way for everyone to concretely support this idea beyond posts on social media.”
Ultimately, Sasha says that with the support of the community she was able to come out of her cancellation in a better position than one might expect. “Standing up in unity is the only way to help someone come out better off on the other side of a mob attack,” she said, “and that is what happened in my case. I am now free to explore ideas with brilliant, non-conformist thinkers.”
According to Sasha and Mark, The Free Speech Fund is a way for the community to pool their resources, “so that any one person who is punished for their speech isn't left vulnerable and alone.”
"We're just beginning," said Sasha, "but our Free speech Fund is meant to take a weapon out of the hands of the woke. Their go to strategy is to target people's livelihood, ours is to join in solidarity and to make this harder and harder for them and ultimately unsuccessful."