Detainment of British woman for misgendering person shows free speech is under attack in UK


Colin Cavanaugh / Graphics Editor

Freedom of speech is effectively dead in the U.K. Once the home of advocates for human liberty like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, the U.K. has ditched free expression for the comforts of politically-correct tyranny.

On Feb. 9, The Daily Mail in the U.K. published a story detailing the harrowing detainment of 38-year-old Kate Scottow. Scottow, a resident of Hertfordshire, England, was handcuffed in front of her autistic ten-year-old daughter and breastfeeding 20-month-old son, brought into custody and held for seven hours in a single jail cell.

What heinous action warranted such drastic measures? The crime of “misgendering,” or calling a transgender individual by their biologically determined set of pronouns instead of their preferred pronouns, precipitated Scottow’s arrest. Stephanie Hayden, a biological male who recently transitioned to identifying as female on social media, reported Scottow to the police.

Scottow’s detainment is a complete departure from the principle of free speech because it criminalizes offensive speech by conflating it with harassment. Scottow was detained by police for harassment under the Equality Act of 2010, which according to Citizens Advice, a governmental help organization in the U.K., includes in its definition of harassment “offensive emails, tweets or comments on social networking sites.” This is a major difference from most harassment laws in the U.S., which do not define offensive speech alone as harassment.

In Massachusetts, for example, a person considered guilty of harassment “willfully and maliciously engages in a knowing pattern of conduct or series of acts over a period of time directed at a specific person, which seriously alarms that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress,” according to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 265 §43A.

Regardless of your views on gender identity or the issues surrounding transgenderism, anyone who puts value in the notion of human liberty or the inalienable right to freedom of speech should find this event deeply concerning. Speech that one finds offensive is completely protected by the First Amendment in the United States, and rightfully so.

If we set the standard of when the government can imprison people for speech at such an arbitrary standard as “offensive” speech, we destroy open debate. Offense is a completely subjective standard and one ripe for abuse by political opponents and tyrannical governments. Somebody reading this column may find something that I write personally offensive, yet I have an inalienable right to continue writing. Offensive speech is speech that expresses an opinion that is unpopular. If society decides that some opinions are to be censored, we collectively lose our capacity to think and speak freely.

There exists an inalienable right to freedom of speech in the U.S., but nobody possesses an inalienable right to not be offended. However, in the U.K., the right to free speech has been supplanted by the tyrannical notion that one has the right not to be offended. In a 1943 speech to Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill stated that “We must beware of a tyranny of opinion which tries to make only one side of a question the one which may be heard.” If Churchill were alive today, he would not recognize his own nation. Instead of insisting that all opinions are allowed, the U.K. has enshrined in their laws the stifling of dissenting speech. Scottow’s arrest is a startling example of this new reality.

The arrest of Kate Scottow is further proof that free speech in the U.K. is dead. Centuries of defending the inalienable right to free speech has given way to an anti-British and anti-liberty belief in the right not to be offended.