Woman giving "shh" pose
Celebrities using legal theatrics to silence critics harm 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 condemned her remarks, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Harry Potter fan sites MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron, and a diverse array of publications. They all unequivocally criticized 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 for libel cases is enough to make people with limited resources realize they’ve no hope to resist. Unsurprisingly, legal systems 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 adding her name to Harper’s letter, seems to legitimize 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 the Harry Potter author threatened someone with legal action. Lately, she risked a Coquitlam-based entrepreneur, LGBTQ2+ advocate, and activist, Nicola Spurling, with legal action for saying something that caused her offense. 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 UK tax consultant Maya Forstater, whose employer chose not to renew her contract because she maintained that “it is impossible to change sex.” The author threatened her with legal consequences. She replied, “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. When read independently, the tweet 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, people are unlikely to regulate narratives. Opinions are changed, asserted, and reconstructed dramatically with seldom any apparent resolution. Due to a lack of supervision, people throw profanities, euphemisms, logic, sarcasm, and so-called unsavory opinions to assert their personal beliefs with impunity. Any punitive measure to control the tsunami of such toxic social media views is impractical. These narratives can be constructively explained or discussed, debunked, ridiculed, or 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 about 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 trivializing the sufferings of an already marginalized community. Besides, action to control the public narrative about your personal views is a cornerstone of totalitarian regimes. Here, the impossible 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 criticized 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) keyboard warriors.

Such appalling backlash is not “disproportionate” but 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 harmless words that shouldn’t be scrutinized is highly disingenuous.

The words of influential people sometimes have grave implications lurking behind their “unsavory” nature. These implications may have chilling effects on marginalized communities. This is not about an individual. This is about a mindset that promotes freedom of speech for a specific privileged section of society. People use freedom of speech and defamation to facilitate their 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 stigmatization of marginalized minorities. People manipulate words, screenshots, and personal information on social media 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 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 well-being. However, influential people like JK Rowling are lucky enough to have the chance to fight back with widespread support. She has a huge fan following and a robust 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 narrative and coerce their critics into silence.

Most people fearful of being threatened with legal action have to conform to certain narratives. In these cases, the powerful nobility is pushing such records, 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, and Saudi Arabia. Here, dissent and whistleblowers face incarceration and languish indefinitely for speaking up against tyrants.

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, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and growing religious intolerance across Europe, it’s not impossible anymore. Certain people constantly threaten freedom of speech by making excuses of “hurting sensibilities” or “being offended.” Such people leverage the privilege of being immune from all criticism. It’s imperative to consider these hard-earned freedoms, which are precarious and necessary to defend. We must do this before they erode further.