The Line Editors: We've really forgotten what 'free speech' means, eh?
No, suing people who libel you is not an attack on the principles of free speech
A dispatch from The Line editors:
You might have noticed a little update to the Great Rowling Eruption of 2020. J.K. Rowling is the British author of the Harry Potter books. She recently made remarks about transgender issues that were, depending on your position on the matter, either a common sense position on biological sex, or literal violence against trans people.
In this latest entry to the saga, Rowling sought, and received, an apology over comments about her comments. As the Guardian reported:
A news website aimed at British schoolchildren has agreed to pay an unsubstantiated amount after it implied that J.K. Rowling’s comments on gender caused harm to trans people.
The Day, which is recommended by the Department for Education and is designed to prompt teenagers to discuss current affairs, faced legal action from the Harry Potter author after publishing an article entitled: “Potterheads cancel Rowling after trans tweet." ... The Day ... has now apologised after Rowling hired libel lawyers. The Day said: “We accept that our article implied that what JK Rowling had tweeted was objectionable and that she had attacked and harmed trans people. The article was critical of J.K. Rowling personally and suggested that our readers should boycott her work and shame her into changing her behaviour. Our intention was to provoke debate on a complex topic. We did not intend to suggest that J.K. Rowling was transphobic or that she should be boycotted. We accept that our comparisons of J.K. Rowling to people such as Picasso, who celebrated sexual violence, and Wagner, who was praised by the Nazis for his antisemitic and racist views, were clumsy, offensive and wrong."
What was truly interesting were the snide comments by some who felt that Rowling's unleashing of the lawyers was an attack on free speech, and therefore, a display of hypocrisy. Rowling, after all, had signed the infamous Harper’s Letter. And now she was launching lawyers?!
We realize that plucking a few random tweets and extrapolating a Broader Meaning from them is a mug's game. You can find anyone arguing anything on Twitter. But you’ll note we didn’t choose random accounts — all of those people are writers and, in their own circles, perhaps even thought leaders. And those tweets reflect a genuinely baffling perception among a segment of society — that free speech advocates are demanding unlimited free speech, at all times and in all circumstances.
This is, to put it mildly, horseshit.
Free speech, like any other right, has limits. And it also has well-established channels for determining right from wrong when there are implacable disputes. Hate speech, in the Canadian context, is a criminal matter, and we have courts that adjudicate those cases and pronounce their findings. For many other matters, suing for libel or slander is the correct response — it keeps disputes over the reasonable bounds on expression in a forum where they can be fairly judged and settled. Only an extreme minority of free speech defenders would argue that the right ought to protect speech that actively seeks to incite harm against an identifiable group — or to speech that is libelous.
Granted, Rowling’s wealth gives her greater access to a legal recourse, but if the author’s comments actually met the standard of the former, she would have enjoyed no defence on the latter point.
Turning to a lawyer and giving someone a chance to retract or defend their words isn't an attack free speech, it's an essential part of it. And the fact that Rowling's critics don't understand this basic fact about what free speech is — and what it is not — might go a long way to explain why we're in this mess in the first place.