Why are the police wasting time arresting Twitter transphobes when they could be tackling knife crime? That was the question asked by Boris Johnson in an article for the Daily Telegraph last February, in which he lambasted officers for arresting a mum for sending some rude tweets. A year on, Boris Johnson is Prime Minister. And now that mum has a criminal record.
Today’s judgement was a hard sight to bear: a 39-year-old mother of two children, one of whom is autistic, listened as the judge at St Albans Magistrates’ Court found her guilty, under the Communications Act (2003), of using a public communications network to ’cause annoyance, inconvenience and anxiety’.
The verdict means Kate Scottow is unlikely to be able to fulfil her ambition of becoming a forensic psychologist, after completing her master’s degree in the subject last year.
Her crime? To send some offensive tweets to a trans woman called Stephanie Hayden. These included describing Hayden as a ‘pig in a wig’ and referring to Hayden as ‘he’ or ‘him’.
Scottow’s tweets were, admittedly, uncivil. But nothing she wrote was worse than what can be seen every day on Twitter and other social media platforms, where thousands of cruel insults and threats are regularly posted without any comeback at all. Hayden herself has referred to people as ‘nutters’ on Twitter. She has also referred to social media site Mumsnet as ‘Nuttersnet’.
Hayden admitted during the trial to being a serial litigator in the civil courts. ‘I am litigious, I put my hands up. I use the law if I feel I have to use the law,’ she told the court. In 2018, Hayden launched civil proceedings against Father Ted writer Graham Linehan for harassment after he allegedly published tweets with her previous male name. The case was later dropped.
Scottow was not so lucky. That the police took the accusations against her seriously is extraordinary. After arresting her, Hertfordshire police allegedly kept her in a cell for seven hours, away from her young children – including the 20-month old son she was still breastfeeding. That the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) then saw fit to prosecute is even more remarkable.
Bear in mind that we are repeatedly told the criminal justice system is creaking at the seams. Police, we are told, sometimes lack the resources to pursue criminals. So why is it that Hertfordshire police decided to expend time and money pursuing this woman?
As I sat in court today, I listened to the judge’s ruling with incredulity. She told Scottow that ‘we teach our children to be kind’ (as if this was at all relevant) and took particular exception to Scottow’s use of ‘Mandy McGirlDick’ as a Twitter handle. Is this really a matter for the courts?
The implications for freedom of speech here are chilling. In Britain, we have traditionally been allowed to be rude to people. In fact, that is what freedom of speech means. Freedom of speech does not refer to the freedom to say nice things, or ‘kind’ things: it means the freedom to say things that others find disagreeable. As George Orwell wrote: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
In an odd stroke of timing, Orwell came up again in another case relating to freedom of speech heard today. Harry Miller was contacted by Humberside police for some allegedly ‘transphobic tweets’, which were then recorded as a non-crime ‘hate incident’. Miller challenged the decision in the High Court and the court ruled that the force’s actions were a ‘disproportionate interference’ on Miller’s right to freedom of expression. ‘In this country,’ said Mr Justice Julian Knowles, ‘we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.’
These are fine words. Perhaps others should take heed.