Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Rishi Sunak can’t lecture Humza Yousaf about free speech

Gender critical activists have been targeted under Rishi Sunak's watch (Credit: Getty images)

Good on Rishi Sunak. At long last we have a Prime Minister who has come out swinging in defence of free speech. When JK Rowling shared her opposition to Scotland’s new hate crime legislation yesterday, Sunak was quick to defend her right to speak out.

If the PM truly believes that the Conservatives are the protectors of free speech then he’s been asleep at the wheel

Rowling declared that: ‘It is impossible to accurately describe or tackle the reality of violence and sexual violence committed against women and girls, or address the current assault on women’s and girls’ rights, unless we are allowed to call a man a man.’ And Sunak, it seems, agrees. ‘People should not be criminalised for stating simple facts on biology,’ he announced. Before adding: ‘We believe in free speech in this country, and Conservatives will always protect it.’

Really? I am guessing this might come as a shock to Harry Miller, Caroline Farrow and Kellie-Jay Keen (a.k.a. Posie Parker) all of whom found themselves targeted by the police after they expressed gender-critical views on social media – and all while the Conservatives were running the country.

It might come as a surprise to the 73-year-old retired social worker from West Yorkshire, who was quizzed by police in her own home for taking a photo of a sticker bearing the slogan, ‘Keep males out of women-only spaces’. This was in September last year, when Sunak was in charge. I’ve scoured the internet but I can find no Prime Ministerial statements arguing for the right of elderly ladies to take photos of feminist slogans.

OK, so England does not have the same draconian hate speech legislation as Scotland. Thank goodness. But the idea that south of the border is a haven of free speech is for the birds. As I explored in Policing Hate, a report for Civitas published in 2020, the past couple of decades have seen the creation of myriad new offences that criminalise speech in England. Much of this legislation has crept in with amendments to the Public Order and Criminal Justice Acts. Speech is then further regulated through the Football Offences and the Communications Acts. Added to this has been the tendency of the police to over-interpret the law by recording non-crime hate incidents.

Despite the Home Office telling police forces to stop recording reports of hate and to ignore instances where no intentional hostility or prejudice can be proven, evidence suggests that the police are continuing to record petty incidents where people report being offended as hate crimes. And, of course, it is in the interests of activists, campaigning on behalf of a particular identity group, to present hate crime – and therefore the need for protections and additional resources – as increasing. So reporting is incentivised, police are kept busy and free speech is curbed.

It is great that Sunak has come out in defence of JK Rowling and in support of free speech. But if the PM truly believes that the Conservatives are the protectors of free speech then he’s been asleep at the wheel. The fact is, people have been targeted for stating biological facts in England and on Sunak’s watch. Of course, it may be that with an election in the offing, defending free speech is deemed a vote-winner. But this is too little, too late for the people who have had the boys in blue knock on their door just for speaking their minds.