Free speech victory after UK court allows ‘right to insult’

In a surprise verdict, the judges of the Court of Appeal in England stated that freedom of speech also means “the right to insult”. The court ruled in favor of a woman who called a transgender woman on Twitter a man and a “pig in a wig.” The court thus set a precedent that will influence further judgments in cases concerning freedom of speech.

“Freedom to speak just politely is not worth having,” said Appellate Court Judges David Bean and Mark Warby. According to them, freedom of speech also includes insults and even verbal abuse of others.

Kate Scottow was arrested for her statements in 2019 after Stephanie Hayden reported her to police for her social media comments, which Hayden said were insulting. Police took her out of her house in front of her two children. The case caused an uproar in Britain, and even Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticized the intervention of law enforcement officers, calling it an “abuse of power”.

Scottow was accused of violating the Communications Act. In February, she left the court with a two-year condition and a fine of a thousand pounds.

“Your comments have not added anything to the debate. We teach our children to be kind to each other and not to offend on the playground,” Judge Margaret Dodds told her then.

However, the relevant parts of the Communications Act “were not passed by parliament to criminalize forms of speech content of which is essentially only annoying or inappropriate,” Judge Warby now said.

The previous judgment was, therefore, canceled.

“It was necessary to enshrine one of the fundamental rights of every living creature in a democratic society — freedom of speech, which is repeatedly attacked today,” Scottow told the Daily Mail. Hayden, on the other hand, sees the court’s conclusion as a “kick to the teeth of the entire LGBT community.”

The court decision upholding free speech follows a similar case in Britain in which police arrested Harry Miller, a former police officer who made transphobic comments. Britain’s High Court has ruled that police were in the wrong for arresting him for the comments, which amounted to a violation of Miller’s free speech. 

Britain may be an exception to more restrictive speech controls being put in place across the West. Overall, The West has seen a rapid erosion of free speech in a number of countries in recent times. This year, Norway passed a law that allowed authorities to imprison individuals for insulting transgender people in public and perhaps more importantly, up to a year in prison for insulting people trans people in private. The law has been harshly criticized, with free speech advocates pointing out that it could create an environment in which people are afraid to voice their opinions among friends and family for fear of informers filing a police complaint. The law also does not clearly define what insulting speech might constitute and what the threshold for an arrest might be. 

This year, Europol, the European Union’s police force, was also involved in a massive anti-free speech raid across European countries. Police searched houses, seized electronic hardware, and arrested dozens of individuals for comments they made online in Germany, Italy, France and even the UK.

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