I have been a long critic of the hate crime laws in Great Britain which has devastated free speech protections with regular criminal charges against people deemed to be insulting or harassing to others. One case highlights how such speech codes have turned courts into micromanagers of manners and language used by citizens in public. It began with a mother, Kate Scottow (left), being arrested in front of her children for the crime of referring to a transgender woman as a man online. The alleged victim, transgender activist Stephanie Hayden, has now charged that she is being denied free speech after being accused of trolling on the Internet.
Three officers came to the house to take Scottow to the police station under suspicion of “deadnaming,” or using the prior name or gender of a transexual person. The mother of an autistic ten-year-old daughter and 20-month-old son, Scottow was held for seven hours and her phone and computers were seized after a complaint by Stephanie Hayden. Hayden accused Scottow of a “campaign of targeted harassment” due to her ‘status as a transgender woman.” The basis was an exchange online where Scottow is accused of “toxic” and “defamatory” language, including referring to Hayden as a male in a debate over self-identification. Scottow insisted that she merely expressing her genuine belief that a person “cannot practically speaking change sex.” However, Deputy Judge Jason Coppel QC issued an injunction against her from making such statements, including “referencing [to Hayden’ as a man” or linking her to her “former male identity.”
We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here and here) and England (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). There are encroachments appearing in the United States, particularly on college campuses. Notably, the media celebrated the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron before Congress where he called on the United States to follow the model of Europe on hate speech.
This case however shows how the process of limiting speech results in a rapid spiraling into limits on other speech and expressions. Sitcom writer Graham Linehan was also given a verbal harassment warning by West Yorkshire Police after Hayden reported him for referring to her by her previous names and pronouns on Twitter.
Now however it is Hayden, 45, who is claiming to have been banned under speech codes. She claims to have been banned from Mumsnet for trolling and has again gone to court to force a judicial review of the exchange. In response, the High Court ordered Mumsnet to reveal the identity of an online troll who made allegedly defamatory comments about Hayden in accusing her of “serious criminal activity.” The website proceeded to strip the anonymity of the commentator but Hayden demands protection for her speech from being barring after Mumsnet said it was reviewing her membership.
Without any hint of self-contradiction, Hayden complained that “Mumsnet have now banned me from the website and accused me of being a troll. This is yet another example of Mumsnet attempting to silence the voices of the transgender community whilst permitting harassment and abuse.”
There is an alternative. It is called free speech.