The UK courts decide that people should not be visited by the police for expressing unpopular, but legal, opinions.
Today has seen a rare victory for free speech and the right to express unpopular opinions in the UK, something that has been under considerable pressure for several years. In a High Court ruling, Mr Justice Knowles has declared that Harry Miller indeed has the right to express non-criminal opinions, however unpleasant some might find them, without being visited by the police and given the frighteners.
Miller was visited by a police officer at his place of work last year, and then further contacted by phone, after posting a number of trans-critical tweets, including a satirical limerick – it might be fair to say that Miller is not on board with the current push for self-identification and modern gender orthodoxy, and does not believe than a man can become a woman (or vice versa) simply by declaring themselves so. Such ideas are not universally popular, to say the least – the wars between trans activists and TERFs (that’s Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists to the uninitiated) are amongst the most brutal, ugly, messy culture wars raging on social media these days, with anyone seemingly associated with the latter immediately cancelled. There is little room for civilised discussion in this war, with both sides fully entrenched in their belief that they are fully, totally in the right and that anyone who even slightly deviates from their beliefs is effectively the Great Satan.
By Humberside Police’s own admission, Miller’s tweets did not cross the line from opinion into criminality – they were not a hate crime, because no crime had been committed. They were not targeted at any individual person, but rather an expression of opinion. But these days, various police forces are fixated not just on crime, but wrongthink – the deeply questionable tactics of recording ‘non-crime hate incidents’, and treating them suspiciously like actual crimes, visiting the wrongthinkers and giving them a shot across the bows as warning against holding such attitudes.
It’s worth noting that when you read headlines about huge increases in ‘hate crime’, much of this is actually due to the recording of ‘hate incidents’, which are entirely down to the interpretation of the individual – or, as the law says, “any non-crime incident which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice”. So if you think any sort of incident is motivated by hate against your protected group (of which there are several based on race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on), then it will be recorded as such. Miller had also challenged the wider use of these guidelines, and lost that appeal – the police will still be able to record non-crime incidents, potentially fiddling the figures for hate crime, and still have ‘offenders’ listed as potential criminals. Miller is taking this to the Supreme Court.
The police can’t charge you with a non-crime, of course. But by visiting the offenders (in this case, literally people who have offended someone), they aim to frighten them into moderating their attitudes. It’s social engineering at its most sinister, punishing people for not having the correct opinions – something that can only lead to a totalitarian system where anyone who holds the wrong ideas according to those in power will be re-educated. Miller was told by one police officer that “we need to check your thinking”, and if that doesn’t send a chill down you, I don’t know what will.
Trans rights activist Helen Belcher popped up on the BBC to comment “I think trans people will be worried it could become open season on us because the court didn’t really define what the threshold for acceptable speech was.” Yet that is pretty much exactly what the ruling did define – acceptable speech is that which remains within the law. Had Miller been targeting abuse at individuals, spreading libel or even seeking to stir up hatred, then he would have certainly stepped over the line. As it was, he made a general criticism of an ideology that is the cause of some public debate, and he’s allowed to do that without the plod turning up at his place of work to make him look like a criminal. It’s a right that both sides should support, because there are plenty on both sides of the debate who are, to say the least, rather emotional and angry – a quick look at the more extreme fringes of trans twitter will unearth some pretty hateful comments about TERFs and CIS people. I’m sure those people would not appreciate having the cops turn up to give them a dressing down in front of their employers either.
Belcher also commented that “it will reinforce an opinion that courts don’t understand trans lives and aren’t there to protect trans people.” Yet only two months ago, a judge ruled against Maya Forstater, who was claiming wrongful dismissal after being fired for tweeting that people cannot change their biological sex, stating that her opinion was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society”. That doesn’t sound like a court system that is unsupportive of trans rights.
And the Miller judgement doesn’t back that idea up either, because ultimately, this case isn’t about trans rights, or any support for Miller’s opinions. Celebrating Miller’s win does not mean that we agree with Miller. But this is about the right to legally criticise any ideology or belief – no matter how unpleasant that criticism might be – without having the police pay you a visit, and we should all be supportive of that, especially groups who have been marginalised and demonised and considered to be a threat to society and to have the wrong sort of thoughts. Too many people seem to think that the rules will miraculously continue to allow them to criticise groups that they disapprove of while being protected from similar criticism, and that society will never shift to the point where they find themselves under investigation for holding unpopular opinions. Those of us who have fought against unjust, bigoted laws in the past are only too aware of how dangerous this can be.
No collective or idea or dogma – all of which will be equally meaningful and identity-driven for its adherents – should be immune to criticism in an open society, and sending in the police to check thinking rather than engaging in open debate is the action of a dictatorship. People who support making wrongthink a police matter should be careful what they wish for…