When celebrities use legal theatrics to silence their critics it is hugely detrimental to the spirit of free speech.

A children’s news site is issuing a public apology to Harry Potter author JK Rowling after receiving threats of legal action. The legal action concerns the claim that her tweets about biological sex harm the transgender community. The chasm between JK Rowling’s supporters and critics has been widening since she expressed her gender-critical views publically. Her views may appear filled with compassion and solicitude, but people also view them as transphobic. Moreover, these theories about the transgender community are harmful theories. People support her while many oppose her views.

Human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Harry Potter fan sites MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron, and a diverse array of publications, condemned her remarks. They all unequivocally criticised JK Rowling’s comments as harmful, with unfounded and unproven theories. They also expressed solidarity with the transgender community.

The prospect of lengthy and costly procedures of libel cases is enough to make people with limited resources realise that they’ve no hope to resist. Unsurprisingly, legal procedures do not offer redress to every person. The misuse of wealth and social influence in such cases receives much publicity. That makes libel courts far beyond the reach of ordinary people.

Conspicuously, threatening legal action against a relatively small publication for critiquing her controversial views, just a few days after promoting freedom of expressing opposing viewpoints and, of course, adding her name to Harper’s letter, seems to legitimise Cancel Culture. This view may have no legal standing. From a moral standpoint, it’s safe to say that the so-called free-speech advocate, JK Rowling has lost it.

This case conveys a clear message to the people to be careful when discussing JK Rowling’s tweets. This wasn’t the first time, though, that the Harry Potter author threatened someone with legal action. Lately, she threatened a Coquitlam-based entrepreneur, LGBTQ2+ advocate  and activist, Nicola Spurling with legal action for saying something that apparently caused her offence. Spurling linked an article from the Guardian about JK Rowling’s new children’s book in a tweet stating, “Definitely something to keep a close eye on. In recent years, JK Rowling has made it clear that she can no longer be trusted around children”.

This happened after the Harry Potter author supported U.K. tax consultant Maya Forstater, whose employer chose not to renew her contract due to her maintaining that “it is impossible to change sex”. The author threatened her with legal consequences. In a reply, she said, “Unless you want to hear from lawyers, you might want to rethink that tweet. I’m not wasting my time arguing with wilful misrepresentations of my views on transgenderism – your timelines show you’re not big on truth – but making serious insinuations like this comes with consequences.”

As a result, Spurling had to delete her original tweet. In it, she states, “At the request of @jk_rowling and on the advice of my lawyers, I have deleted my original tweet. The tweet, when read on its own, lacked clarity and, right or wrong, wealth is powerful.” She added, “With that said, I stand behind the intent of the tweet, which was to “highlight the dangerous nature of transphobia.”

In a world of social media, where opinions play politics, it’s highly unlikely for people to regulate narratives. Opinions are changed, asserted, and reconstructed dramatically with seldom any obvious resolution. Due to a lack of supervision, people throw around profanities, euphemisms, logic, sarcasm and so-called unsavoury opinions to assert their personal beliefs with impunity. Any punitive measure to control the tsunami of such toxic opinions on social media is just not practical. These narratives can be constructively explained or discussed, debunked, ridiculed, or simply ignored.

The problem is that coercing people into silence with possible lawsuits is to be inconsistent. Of course, libel is a different matter in which legal action is potentially justified. But what we are talking here is the critiquing of personal views. This is especially true for a self-prescribed defender of free speech. Such actions reflect a poorly thought-out attempt to deal with the crucial issues. Such issues may end up trivialising sufferings of an already marginalised community. Besides, action to control the public narrative about your personal views is a corner-stone of totalitarian regimes. Here, the insurmountable ideological difference is seen as a threat. Additionally, a sense of moral superiority justifies the denial of free speech for ordinary people.

JK Rowling is a public figure and made a public statement about transgender people who are already living on the margins of society. One shouldn’t forget that she is not just any other person. She is THE JK Rowling. What she says has a profound impact on people’s lives. Saying that her words might have consequences for ordinary and vulnerable people would not be exaggerated.

In June, after the historic win for LGBTQ rights at the US Supreme court, a vote on the Equality Act to codify and expand those protections was blocked by Oklahoma Republican James Lankford. They cited JK Rowling’s heavily criticised blog in his arguments against moving forward with the bill. We should all condemn the threats and harassment directed at the Harry Potter author by (mainly anonymous) by keyboard warriors.

Such appalling backlash is not “disproportionate” but totally unfair. This is because the vilification of people with whom you disagree under the guise of “criticism” is never justifiable. Yet, implying that JK Rowling’s gender-critical views are merely harmless words and, therefore, shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny is highly disingenuous.

The words uttered by influential people sometimes have grave implications lurking behind their “unsavoury” nature. These implications may have chilling effects on marginalised communities. This is not about an individual. This is about a mindset that promotes freedom of speech for a certain privileged section of society. People take advantage of the freedom of speech and defamation to facilitate their own narratives. Of course, some people consider these narratives beyond the pale.

The trait of social media lynching is widespread. People use these tactics as an excuse to further nefarious agendas including racism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, far-left and far-right ideology, and the stigmatisation of marginalised minorities. On social media, people manipulate words, screenshots and personal information for revenge against their opponents. Moreover, people are not asking them to provide physical evidence for such baseless accusations. This sense of superior morality entitles them to lynch people online without having any shame or facing any legal consequences.

Such a drastic distortion of information and one-sided manipulation can have a long-lasting impact on people’s mental and physical wellbeing. However, influential people like JK Rowling are lucky enough to have the chance to fight back with popular support. She has a huge fan following and a powerful platform that many of us can only imagine. Furthermore, influential people settling such matters with threatened legal consequences will set a dangerous precedent. They make free speech and defamation concerns merely tools to further their own personal narrative and coerce their critics into silence.

The majority of people fearful of being threatened with legal action are having to conform to certain narratives. In these case, it is the powerful nobility pushing such narratives, at least on the internet. Being an ardent advocate of free speech, I believe influential people using legal theatrics to silence their critics is hugely detrimental to the spirit of free speech. In democratic western countries, it’s hard to imagine a society with constricted or no free speech for ordinary people. Such a society will not be any different from authoritarian states. Examples include Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Here, dissent and whistleblowers face incarceration and languish in indefinite confinements for speaking up against tyrants.

The idea of having totalitarian regimes in the West was seen as farfetched just a few years back. Yet, with the rise of Polish President Andrzej Sebastian Duda, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and growing religious intolerance across Europe, it’s not impossible anymore. Freedom of speech is constantly threatened by certain people making excuses of “hurting sensibilities” or “being offended”. Such people leverage the privilege of being immune from all criticism. It’s imperative to have a little consideration of these hard-earned freedoms, which are precarious and necessary to defend. We must do this before they erode further.