J.K. Rowling signs letter warning over free speech after trans row

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 July 2020 12:51 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Author J.K. Rowling poses for photographers at a gala performance of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child parts One and Two, in London, Britain July 30, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hal

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The Harry Potter author was among those warning that ‘a vogue for public shaming’ was restricting open debate

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, July 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Author J.K. Rowling has joined 150 high-profile figures on an open letter warning that free speech is under threat due an "intolerance of opposing views", after coming under attack for her comments about transgender issues.

The "Harry Potter" writer, who has been accused of transphobia by LGBT+ activists for likening hormone treatment to gay conversion therapy and saying only women menstruate, joined 150 academics, artists and writers who signed the letter.

Other signatories on the 530-word letter published in Harper's magazine included U.S. feminist Gloria Steinem, author Margaret Atwood and linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

In "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate", they welcomed protests for racial and social justice and calls for greater equality across society.

But they cautioned that this drive had also intensified a "new set of moral attitudes and political commitments" that tended to weaken norms of open debate and tolerance of different views, with a "vogue for public shaming and ostracism".

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," the letter read.

"But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

Rowling has come under fire for speaking out on trans issues, including raising concerns that trans rights are eroding women's rights to single-sex spaces and suggesting young women are being rushed into medical transition.

In a 3,600-word essay last month she defended her right to speak about trans issues without fear of abuse, and explained that her views were over women's safety and stemmed from her own past experiences of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

"I was very proud to sign this letter in defence of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech," Rowling wrote on Twitter.

Rowling's spokesman declined to make any further comment.

Some critics, however, accused Rowling of using her platform to target trans rights while trying to deflect criticism in response.

"We consider it disingenuous for a world-famous author with millions of followers to imply she is being silenced by a group of people who are consistently ignored, misrepresented, ridiculed and humiliated," said a spokesman for Mermaids, a charity that supports trans children and their families.

Another of the letter's signatories, transgender author and professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, later indicated that she regretted taking part.

"I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming," she wrote. "The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry."

Related stories:

J.K. Rowling likens hormone treatment to gay conversion therapy

J.K. Rowling and trans women in single-sex spaces: what's the furore?

J.K. Rowling faces backlash again over 'anti-trans' tweets

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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