There is a free speech fight brewing in Scotland where a prominent feminist, Marion Millar, 50, has been charged with the crime of “malicious communication” due to tweets criticizing gender self-identification. We have previously discussed how feminists are being accused of hate speech and discrimination in these debates. Indeed, Millar is accused of being a “terf” (a trans-exclusionary radical feminist) by critics due to her opposition to allowing males to declare themselves to be females. She could now face two years in jail.
We have been discussing the continuing erosion of free speech protections in the United Kingdom (here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. As noted in a prior column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
Scotland has adopted particularly chilling limitations on free speech. These controversies often involve the criminalization of political or ideological viewpoints.
What is particularly concerning in this case is that Millar was not told which of her tweets were deemed “malicious.” Millar has thousands of tweets and was told that the charge is based on tweets between 2019 and 2020. She was simply ordered to the police station and told that social workers would be sent to care for her young twin boys, who are autistic. After she emerged from the station, she quoted the novelist Salman Rushdie: “Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration I have ever read.”
Millar has been a prominent critic of self-identification as a threat to women and feminist values. This includes criticism of the Gender Recognition Act and the Hate Crime Bill. New provisions include crimes for “stirring up hatred” in statements about different groups. Scotland emphasized that it must be intentional but the language was still criticized as a further criminalization of political speech. The charges against Millar do not appear to have been brought under the new law.
There are believed to be six tweets that were cited in the complaint, including pictures of the green, white and purple suffragette ribbons tied around trees to support Millar’s cause. The accuser reportedly said that the ribbons looked like nooses and were therefore threats.
Such charges are rife with subjectivity. Indeed, the term “terfs” captures the problem in criminalizing such speech. Terfs are being attacked in the media in articles that tend to include anyone who opposes transgender laws. The labeling creates a chilling effect for those who might want to speak out against aspects of these laws or policies. For some feminists, gender self-identification creates dangerous situations for women and negates core elements of feminist values. For others, this opposition is a denial of their identification and characterizes them as dangerous or potentially criminal.
As will come as no surprise to readers on this blog, my default is with free speech. Both sides should be able to address these issues in a public debate. The effort by some to criminally charge advocates like Millar is to silence rather than to respond to opposing viewpoints. Such speech limitations tend to grow with time. Once groups taste the ability to silence others, it becomes an insatiable appetite for censorship and criminalization of speech.