The Observer view on the right to free expression


Show caption German artist Jess de Wahls received an apology from the Royal Academy weeks after it accused her of ‘transphobia’ and stopped stocking her work. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images Opinion The Observer view on the right to free expression Observer editorial Whatever your view on sex and gender, freedom of speech is key Sun 27 Jun 2021 06.30 BST Share on Facebook

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Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of democracy, which cannot flourish unless citizens can articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship or sanction. So it should concern anyone who claims to be a democrat that there is growing evidence that women who have expressed a set of feminist beliefs that have come to be known as “gender-critical” have, in some cases, faced significant professional penalties as a result.

“Gender-critical” beliefs refer to the view that someone’s sex – whether they are male or female – is biological and immutable and cannot be conflated with someone’s gender identity, whether they identify as a man or a woman. The belief that the patriarchal oppression of women is grounded partly in their biological sex, not just the social expression of gender, and that women therefore have the right to certain single-sex spaces and to organise on the basis of biological sex if they so wish, represents a long-standing strand of feminist thinking. Other feminists disagree, believing that gender identity supersedes biological sex altogether.

Both are legitimate perspectives that deserve to be heard in a democratic society. Both can be expressed without resulting in the abuse, harassment and discrimination of trans people or women. Being able to talk about these alternative perspectives goes to the heart of resolving important questions about how we structure society. They include: whether it is right that the law permits the provision of single-sex spaces and services; whether official government data, such as the census, should record a person’s biological sex as well as gender identity; whether women have the right to request that intimate medical examinations or searches are undertaken by someone who is female; what are the appropriate safeguards in the medical treatment of children with gender dysphoria; and whether it is legitimate to exclude those who have been through male puberty from competing in women’s sport.

We need to protect dignity and rights for trans women while respecting the dignity and rights of those born female

As a society, we need to resolve the question of how to protect the privacy, dignity and rights of trans women while also respecting the privacy, dignity and rights of those born female.

Yet there have been clear and significant attempts to interfere with women’s freedom to express gender-critical beliefs. Maya Forstater lost paid work as a result of colleagues complaining about the gender-critical beliefs that she had expressed on social media. The academics Rosa Freedman and Jo Phoenix were disinvited from speaking at Essex University events because of their gender-critical beliefs and were subjected to violent threats from students, with serious wider professional consequences.

Two weeks ago, the Royal Academy announced in a social media post to half-a-million followers that it would no longer be stocking the artist Jess de Wahls’s work because of her “transphobic” views, based on a gender-critical blogpost she wrote in 2019.

These are just a few examples but there have been many more of women being harassed, punished, censured – and even physically assaulted – for their gender-critical views. Meanwhile, the chief executive of Stonewall has likened gender-critical beliefs to antisemitism. The chilling result is the frightening of women into silence because they fear the consequences of expressing their feminist beliefs.

In recent weeks, there has been an overdue correction in the public realm, reinforcing the fact that both sets of beliefs – gender-critical and sex-critical – are legitimate perspectives that do not permit people to harass or abuse others or engage in hate speech and cannot be silenced. In the case of Forstater, an employment tribunal has found that her gender-critical beliefs are “widely shared”, do not “seek to destroy the rights of trans persons” and have the status of a protected belief under equalities law. The barrister Akua Reindorf undertook an independent review for Essex University and found its treatment of Phoenix and Freedman was unlawful and that the university’s policies misstated equalities law to the detriment of women. And the Royal Academy has issued an apology to de Wahls, conceding that it had betrayed its most important core value: the protection of free speech.

For centuries, patriarchal societies have tried to limit the free expression of women. For centuries, women have fought back against attempts to curb their fundamental human rights. It should not need stating that gender-critical feminists have the same free-speech rights as all other citizens. In a democracy, there is no debate to be had about women’s freedom of speech.

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