A response to Peter Tatchell on “Free Speech” vs “Freedom from Criticism”

It’s hardly unsurprising that a letter in the Observer, “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals, contains misleading statements and half-truths. After all, it has been signed by a number of high-profile campaigners against equality for trans people and sex workers who have long found any criticism of their position inconvenient.

What is surprising, and why the letter is deserving of closer scrutiny, is the inclusion of Peter Tatchell’s name at the bottom. My first thought was to check that this was the same Peter Tatchell as the notable gay rights campaigner and not just someone with the same name. Sadly, as can be seen from his twitter feed, it’s the same guy.

Lets take a look at the points raised in the letter one by one. It is a poor selection of arguments indeed as I do not need to cherry pick points from the letter – this is every item in the letter trivially and quickly taken apart by just a little knowledge of the facts and issues involved.

  1. First up, the events surrounding Smirthwate’s show being cancelled. The letter says:

    The fate of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show, cancelled by Goldsmith’s College in London last month is part of a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed “transphobic” or “whorephobic”.

    What they didn’t mention was that the show was cancelled in part because of a lack of interest, with only 8 tickets sold. Goldsmith’s Comedy also provide us with more background via Tumblr – specifically, that Smurthwaite herself had warned (Falsely) of a picket of “hundreds”, which the university society simply wasn’t in a position to handle safely, and that “the show will end up being me crying”.

    Free speech does not include the right to an audience but the message here is “Nobody wants to hear me cry and that violates my free speech

  2. Next up:

    There were calls for the Cambridge Union to withdraw a speaking invitation to Germaine Greer

    This one really is a continuation of the last point: Cambridge Union decided to host the event, as is their right, so a parallel event was organised and was, by some accounts, more popular than the original.

    Message: “People talking about me violates my free speech, but I’m allowed to talk about them”

    (It is worth noting that free speech means that Cambridge Union are not free from the consequences of their choice to host Greer: We’re allowed to think that they acted immaturely with their pointless digs at CUSU LGBT+ on Twitter)

  3. My personal favourite is about Cambridge PPC Rupert Read:

    The Green party came under pressure to repudiate the philosophy lecturer Rupert Read after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans-activists.

    There is only one possible take-home statement from this: “The freedom of speech of the establishment trumps the freedom of speech of everyone else, because we can’t stand criticism.” For Tatchell to sign a letter stating politicians should be free from criticism is especially bizarre, given his history. I hope he simply did not read it properly before signing.

    In other words, All people are equal, but some people are more equal than others.

  4. And finally:

    The feminist activist and writer Julie Bindel has been “no-platformed” by the National Union of Students for several years.

    No platforming is bad, right? Not if you understand what No Platforming is: As the name says, it recognises that someone does not have the right to demand a platform, nor do they have the right to demand to engage with debate against a group.

    The signatories of this letter are stating that they should be allowed to barge on to any university campus or private property anywhere in the land, despite any attempt to create a safe space policy, and start a discussion of their choosing. (For reasons unclear to me, this seems to be a one-sided right: Transphobes have a long history of involvement in events that prevent some women not just from a platform but from turning up at all)

    Or: “Even though we have already established we have free speech and you don’t, we still want more“.

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