Margaret Nelson is a 74-year-old woman who lives in a village in Suffolk. On Monday morning she was woken by a telephone call. It was an officer from Suffolk police. The officer wanted to speak to Mrs Nelson about her Twitter account and her blog.
Mrs Nelson, a former humanist celebrant and one-time local newspaper journalist, enjoys tweeting and writing about a number of issues, including the legal and social distinctions between sex and gender.
Among the statements she made on Twitter last month and which apparently concerned that police officer: ‘Gender is BS. Pass it on’.
‘Gender’s fashionable nonsense. Sex is real. I’ve no reason to feel ashamed of stating the truth. The bloody annoying ones are those who use words like ‘cis’ or ‘terf’ and other BS, and relegate biological women to a ‘subset’. Sorry you believe the mythology.’
The blog, meanwhile, is mainly about death and funeral rituals: Mrs Nelson has officiated at many funerals. One of her blog posts, on 19 January 2018, challenges the statement that ‘transwomen are women’ on the grounds that a person’s proclaimed gender does not change their biological sex.
Mrs Nelson wrote:
‘If a transgender person’s body was dissected, either for medical education or a post-mortem examination, his or her sex would also be obvious to a student or pathologist. Not the sex that he or she chose to present as, but his or her natal sex; the sex that he or she was born with. Even when a body has been buried for a very long time, so that there is no soft tissue left, only bone, it is still possible to identify the sex. DNA and characteristics such as the shape of the pelvis will be clear proof of the sex of the corpse.’
Mrs Nelson told me this about the call from the police:
‘The officer said she wanted to talk to me about some of the things I’d written on Twitter and my blog. She said that some of the things that I’d written could have upset or offended transgender people. So could I please stop writing things like that and perhaps I could remove those posts and tweets?’
‘I asked the officer if she agreed that free speech was important. She said it was. I said that in that case, she’d understand that I wouldn’t be removing the posts or stopping saying the things I think. She accepted that and that was the end of the conversation.’
Mrs Nelson says the that officer made no suggestion that anything she had done was illegal. She says the officer gave no reason for the call.
She later asked the Suffolk force for an explanation, and received, via Twitter, this explanation:
Hi Margaret, we had a number of people contact us on social media about the comments made online. A follow-up call was made for no other reason than to raise awareness of the complaints. Kind regards, Web Team.
— Suffolk Police (@SuffolkPolice) February 4, 2019
‘Hi Margaret, we had a number of people contact us on social media about the comments made online. A follow-up call was made for no other reason than to raise awareness of the complaints. Kind regards, Web Team.’
I’ve also asked the force for a comment; they haven’t yet given me a substantive reply, but their statement to Mrs Nelson confirms the it was indeed one of their officers that called her.
Read that police statement again and consider those words: a sworn officer of the law took the time and trouble to call an utterly law-abiding woman to ask her to stop saying things that might cause offence ‘for no other reason than to raise awareness of the complaints’.
Mrs Nelson, of course, is not the only person to have been treated in such a way. Last month, Harry Miller, a businessman in Lincolnshire received a call from Humberside Police about what the force considered a potential ‘hate incident’. Mr Miller had tweeted about transgender issues and, like Mrs Nelson, had questioned the assertion that someone born with a male body can become a woman on the basis of their proclaimed gender identity. There are other similar cases too, where the police have interviewed people for saying things that are alleged to have caused upset and distress to transgender people.
There are many practical and factual questions that arise from cases like these.
Why are the police acting in this way? What training have officers received in relation to transgender issues, and from whom? Are some people or organisations deliberately and vexatiously exploiting some police forces’ stance on this issue to instigate police action against people who say things they do not like? Could such police actions exert a chilling effect on the expression of opinion on transgender issues? Isn’t it possible that some people will now think ‘I’d best not say what I think about sex and gender, or the police might get involved?’
There are also some questions of principle.
Is it the job of police officers to act in such a way? To police private, lawful expressions of opinion, simply because some people complain that they find those expressions of opinion upsetting or unkind? What are the police for?
When Sir Robert Peel instigated the creation of the modern English police in 1829, the first Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis issued all constables with nine ‘General Instructions’ which are still in use today, underpinning the concept to ‘policing by consent.’
The first three principles are:
- To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
- To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
- To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
I wonder what cases like that of Margaret Nelson do for ‘public approval’ of the ‘existence, actions and behaviour’ of the police? I also wonder when the politicians responsible for the framework of law in which the police exist and operate will start to ask whether cases like that of Mrs Nelson and Mr Miller require some scrutiny, and see that those questions above need some answers.
As for Mrs Nelson, you might be wondering how a 74-year-old woman was left feeling following a call from the police urging her to change her ways, keep quiet and stop upsetting people. You might wonder if she was shaken or upset. After all, dealing with the police can be a little unnerving.
That was, I confess, what I was thinking when I asked Mrs Nelson how she felt about her experiences on Monday. And so I was rather delighted with her response, which I reproduce here, with admiration and in the conviction that Margaret Nelson must have the last word in this story:
‘I’m not going to keep quiet just because some people might get a bit upset. I’m 74. I don’t give a fuck any more.’
Shortly after this piece was published, Suffolk Police sent me a statement effectively admitting that they made a mistake by calling Mrs Nelson. A Suffolk Constabulary spokesman said:
“We accept we made a misjudgement in following up a complaint regarding the blog. As a result of this we will be reviewing our procedures for dealing with such matters. We are sorry for any distress we may have caused in the way this issue was dealt with, and have been in contact with the woman who wrote the blog to apologise.”
Which is, I suppose, a good thing and the force should be commended for admitting its mistake and apologising. But there are still questions that remain unanswered. One of them: why on earth did anyone ever think that this was the right thing to do in the first place?