The right to swing arms

There were two trans-related court verdicts yesterday, although only one of them has received significant coverage.

In the one you’ve probably read about, Harry Miller had a partial victory in his case against Humberside Police, who turned up at his work to quiz him about his anti-trans tweets.

The verdict chimes with what most people (cis and trans) I’ve seen discuss the case think: the police were too heavy-handed in dealing with someone who’s deeply unpleasant – as one learned commentator put it yesterday, “most people who test the limits of free speech are going to be wankers, but Harry Miller is really pushing it” – but who wasn’t committing a crime.

Fans of irony were amused by the post-verdict photo shoot where Miller was photographed with various odious supporters calling themselves free speech defenders. One of those supporters loves free speech so much that has spent the last week threatening to sue various people on Twitter for calling him names. A few days ago he threatened one legendary feminist with a defamation suit because she told him to “fuck off”.

What the verdict didn’t do was say it’s legal to abuse people on the internet, although that’s how many people have chosen to interpret it. What chance have we got when even the BBC can’t report it properly?

No they weren’t. The case wasn’t about the lawfulness of the “opaque, profane and unsophisticated” posts; it was about whether police correctly followed guidelines. 

Which leads us to the second case, which hasn’t attracted as much coverage (apart from a really nasty piece of victim-blaming by the Daily Mail; in one section, now removed, it accused the victim of “brandishing her GRC” as if a gender recognition certificate were some kind of weapon rather than a bit of official paperwork).

In the second case, Kate Scottow was found guilty of “persistently making use of a public communications network” by setting up multiple social media accounts to attack, defame and harass one person.

As her victim, Stephanie Hayden, said in a statement:

The media-led obsession and campaign of hate is encouraging people like Katherine Scottow to think they can target transgender people online with impunity.

And it continues to do so.

The law’s pretty clear on all of this. It’s perfectly legal to have racist, misogynist, homophobic, anti-semitic or transphobic views, but it’s not legal to harass, abuse or assault people because of those views.

Unfortunately a lot of the reporting hasn’t quite grasped that, and journalist Jane Fae was quick to notice. As she writes on Twitter in a thread that’s well worth your time:

two different cases, two verdicts. In the first, dealing with the process of recording a hate incident, a court took issue with how the police had done it. In the second, hateful harassment was treated as a crime.

…This was crying out for analysis that juxtaposed the two cases. But most coverage,starting with the @bbcnews focussed on the hate incident case and just ignored the scottow one

As Fae notes, press reports claiming that the judge in the Miller case said it was legal to be nasty to trans people simply aren’t true. The case was about police procedures, not the content of messages. And the Scottow case was about a deliberate and sustained campaign of harassment, not the beliefs behind it.

It’s perfectly legal to believe even the most horrible things. It’s not legal to act on those beliefs if doing so harms other people. That’s hardly a new concept. As US politician John B Finch said in 1882: “your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”



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